WASHINGTON — The U.S. Justice Department and civil rights advocates representing black voters in Shelby County have asked a federal judge to uphold the historic Voting Rights Act as a fair and still-necessary deterrent to bias at the ballot box.
"Unchecked racial discrimination in voting erodes our Constitution's promise of equality, sharply undermines the integrity of our democratic processes, and imposes significant harms on our citizens and nation," the groups wrote recently in a joint court filing.
Shelby County sued the Justice Department earlier this year, alleging two key sections of the Voting Rights Act are unconstitutional because Congress did not have enough evidence of blatant government discrimination against blacks to warrant the law's extension.
The conservative, strongly Republican county south of Birmingham is taking the stand on its own behalf and the behalf of others in the South who say the law has outlived its usefulness and is burdensome to taxpayers.
The law, in part, requires certain areas of the country with a history of voter discrimination to have their voting-related activities pre-screened by the Justice Department to ensure minority voters are not disenfranchised. The federal government typically reviews redistricting plans, changes in polling places and annexations. All or part of 16 states are covered by Section 5 of the law, including all of Alabama.
The Alabama lawsuit has become a front line in the latest legal battle over the 1965 law and is widely expected to be the vehicle for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the issue.
The groups defending the voting law filed their written arguments to a Washington, D.C., judge Nov. 15. They argue that every time Congress has extended the law, similar challenges to its constitutionality have been rejected. Congress in 2006 held 21 hearings and decided, almost unanimously, to extend the law for another 25 years.
Congress found that "despite the progress made by minorities under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the evidence before Congress reveals that 40 years has not been a sufficient amount of time to eliminate the vestiges of discrimination following nearly 100 years of disregard for the dictates of the 15th amendment and to ensure that the right of all citizens to vote is protected as guaranteed by the Constitution," according to the Justice Department's brief.
Shelby County previously has argued that record numbers of blacks vote and get elected to public office across the state, which county lawyers say is proof the law is outdated. But civil rights groups say minority voting rights still are vulnerable, especially because the state has such racially polarized voting patterns.
Since the Voting Rights Act was extended in 1982, the Justice Department has objected to 46 voting-related changes in Alabama, seven from the state and 39 from local jurisdictions. "Many of the objections from Alabama were based upon evidence of purposeful discrimination," Justice Department lawyers wrote.
A lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, one of the organizations opposing Shelby County, said the timing of the case is especially relevant because of the upcoming round of redistricting, which is done once every 10 years after new census figures are released.
"This case seeks to extinguish Section 5 on the brink of the period when its protections have been needed most — during redistricting when discrimination against minority voters has historically been widespread and rampant," Kristen Clarke said in a prepared statement.