Ernest Montgomery has lived in Calera, a city located within Shelby County, Alabama for more than thirty years. In 2004, he became only the second African American elected to serve on the City Council in Calera’s history. In the next election, however, Montgomery lost his seat after Calera redrew its district lines and failed to seek federal review of the new plan as required by the Voting Rights Act. Not only did Ernest Montgomery lose his position on City Council, Calera’s African American community lost the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
The unreviewed redistricting plan dramatically altered the makeup of voters in Montgomery’s district, District 2. The district went from having a registered voter population that was 71% African Americans to one less than half that size -- just 29.5%. Redrawing the lines without preclearance eliminated Calera’s only majority minority district and stripped minority voters of an opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.
It is the unfortunate history of ongoing discrimination and racially polarized voting that necessitates Section 5 – a remedy to help block and deter the kind of discrimination that continues in places like Shelby County today. Under Section 5, Calera is required to submit proposed voting changes for federal approval before they are enacted to ensure that they are free from discrimination. Because the city did not get the required pre-clearance before instituting its new redistricting plan, the election results that resulted from that plan were invalidated.
Ultimately, the Department of Justice rejected the redistricting plan that significantly diluted the voting power of the city’s African American population and required another election be held. This time, Ernest Montgomery regained his rightful seat, winning the most votes of any City Council candidate in the race. He remains Calera’s sole African American representative today. This past spring, officials in Shelby County filed a suit challenging the constitutionality and scope of the Section 5 preclearance provision – the heart of the Voting Rights Act. In its challenge, Shelby County seeks to invalidate Section 5 not just in Alabama but in all 16 of the states that are fully or partially covered under the law. Without the protections afforded by Section 5, discriminatory action like that recently witnessed in Calera, would be allowed to continue unchecked.
Calera is currently the fastest-growing city in Alabama. Ernest Montgomery believes Calera’s rapid growth invites the kind of discriminatory action that he personally experienced. Montgomery also believes that the evidence of discrimination and underscores the continuing need for the protections Section 5 provides. LDF agrees, and has intervened in defense of the Voting Rights Act to ensure that minority voters continue to have the safeguards afforded by Section 5 in place.