The right to vote is a cornerstone of American democracy.
It wasn’t always so pivotal, but citizens certainly view it as such now. As the number of people who can democratically participate in government has increased, the right to vote has become almost sacred.
Furthering this idea was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was a landmark piece of legislation that aimed to end discrimination in voting by prohibiting literacy tests and poll taxes.
The U.S. Supreme Court hear oral arguments in the case of Shelby County v. Holder on Feb. 27, which has challenged the constitutionality of the VRA. The provision at issue is Section 5, which bans certain jurisdictions (states, counties or individual cities) with a history of voter suppression from adopting any election laws without “pre-clearance” by the Justice Department.
The Court has recognized in the past that the act is a constitutional extension of Congress’ power under the Fifteenth Amendment, which states that the right to vote shall not be abridged on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude, and that Congress has the power to enforce this through legislation.
The attorneys for Shelby County, Ala. claim that the county no longer discriminates against minorities, that there are no longer any attempts at voter suppression and the law is an undue burden on these jurisdictions.
As much as some want to believe otherwise, states and other jurisdictions still try to pass voter suppression laws. Voter fraud is not particularly high, yet states are clamoring for voter identification laws that would limit the number of people who can vote.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “Racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history.”
Although these jurisdictions say they do not discriminate, Congress has determined that there have been attempts at such suppression in the past 10 years — otherwise they would not fall under the purview of the Justice Department through the VRA.
If the Court strikes down Section 5, it does not mean that there would be no further attempts to suppress voter turnout based on race. That is why Congress crafted Section 5 of the act: Instead of suing each district individually for violating the VRA, they could simply ensure that such discriminatory laws were never passed.
States and certain jurisdictions may give up some of their rights due to this but Congress also forced states to meet certain requirements, such as ratifying the Reconstruction Amendments before they could re-take their seats in Congress.
When a crisis occurs that cannot resolve itself and it has the constitutional authority to address it, it is the prerogative of Congress to respond.
Besides the validity of the law, the justices on the Court should remember that this is a provision that Congress extended again in 2006.
The legislature of the U.S., a body politic elected by the people and tasked with creating laws, renewed the VRA and proclaimed its continued necessity less than a decade ago.
While it is the place of the Supreme Court to emphatically define what the law is, it is not the justices’ place to legislate from the bench. They are not a super-legislature to dictate which laws are necessary.
With Chief Justice John Roberts at its helm, the Supreme Court may overturn a section of landmark legislation. Congress should determine if Section 5 of the VRA is still necessary, not the Court — and Congress has done so. Besides the validity of the law, the justices on the Court should remember that this is a provision that Congress extended as recently as 2006.
Overturning the VRA or even a section of it, would be a setback for the civil liberties of citizens in America.
The principle of federalism cannot possibly be used to legitimize the right of states to pass discriminatory laws. Although it may place a burden on the states, it is a necessary burden. “States’ rights” should never jeopardize the rights of individuals.
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