|Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires states with a history of discrimination to get the federal government's approval when they want to change their voting laws or change their voting districts.|
Now, Shelby County, a mostly white County south of Birmingham, is saying that the law gives the federal government too much power and that it's no longer needed--that times have changed in the South, and there is no longer any more discrimination in the South than there is in any other part of the country.
There are several things to keep in mind as this case moves along and the justices eventually issue their opinions. First, conservatives like to champion the idea of judicial restraint and deferring to Congress and state legislatures. If that is truly the case, the law will be upheld--it is squarely within Congress' authority to pass laws regarding equal protection and voting, and it's been on the books for 50 years. We all know that the idea of conservative judicial restraint, however, is a farce. In fact, the Roberts Court has been incredibly activist in striking down laws that don't fit within the justices' conservative ideology.
Second, by any measure, the Voting Rights Act has been one of the most successful laws ever written by Congress. It upended the status quo of systematic discrimination and turned it on its head. It has invalidated hundreds of voting laws and gerrymandered districts where whites tried their best to dilute minority voting power. Most recently, it invalidated several voter ID laws that would have had a disproportionate impact on blacks and Latinos.
Third, besides the voter ID laws, it's not as if systematic discrimination doesn't still occur. Shelby County, along with 179 other cities and counties in Alabama, were sued in 2008 because they refused to amend their at-large voting systems, which made it virtually impossible for blacks and Latinos to win elections. Shelby County was found guilty of discrimination. In 2012, the law invalidated a redistricting plan drawn up by the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature that would have diluted black-and-Latino voting power.
Fourth, another conservative argument is that Section Five is not needed because Section Two allows people to file lawsuits in federal court. Lawsuits, however, are enormously expensive and are barriers to many people asserting their rights. The costs of getting federal government approval for changes in voting laws, however, are miniscule compared to a lawsuit.
In oral arguments, Justice Roberts asked the solicitor general if it was the government's position that citizens in the South were more racist than citizens in other parts of the country. He answered "no," but he should have answered "yes." That is a hard proposition to prove, but racism has always been worse in the South, and there's no reason to think that the South has caught up and become as enlightened as the rest of the country when it comes to race relations. If you don't believe me, consider that Mississippi just ratified the Thirteenth Amendment. Also, take a look at a map of racist tweets after Obama won reelection and where the tweets came from. Guess which state had the highest concentration of racist tweets. You guessed it--Alabama (with Mississippi a close second).
The Voting Rights Act is still needed. I'm assuming it won't be at some point, but we're not there yet. Colorblind laws are a worthy goal, but we can't pretend that the world is colorblind. Race matters, racism exists, and we need the federal government to ensure that minorities are protected.