By Sherry Sherrill
The Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, is a historic piece of landmark legislation that made voting rights discrimination a federal offense. It contains empowering clauses and stringent remedies to offset tactics meant to thwart the political will, participation and power of this nation’s most marginalized populations, including minorities, those with literacy issues, non-English speaking persons, and the poor.
As such, the act is the federal government’s and vulnerable communities’ chief weapon to combat efforts to disenfranchise, suppress or dilute voters’ influence. Specifically, Section 5 of the act has to do with certain designated regions of the country needing to obtain advance clearance from the U.S. Justice Department or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., before making changes to their voting policies, procedures and practices.
Another clause, Section 4, provides the formula to be used in identifying jurisdictions that offend voting rights and establishes remedies. It also ensures protections for voters with limited English proficiency and provides for discontinuation of Section 5’s preclearance requirement when there has been a consistent and uninterrupted pattern of nondiscriminatory conduct on the part of enjoined jurisdictions.
These sections work in conjunction with Section 2, which says that parties alleging voter discrimination need only establish that the said policy, procedure or practice has had or will have a discriminating effect. That clause has an importance that cannot be overstated. That is because proving perpetrators had willful intent to inflict harm is not a prerequisite to bringing or winning an action under Section 2. So, like Sections 5 and 4, Section 2 is a crucial clause whose absolute necessity is not difficult to ascertain and whose role in preserving voting rights in this nation should be perpetuated instead of undermined.
The latter impact, however, is precisely what the current review of Section 5 by Supreme might serve to accomplish. Therein lies the danger. If this particular instance of a jurisdiction having been required to continue adhering to Section 5’s preclearance requirements is successfully challenged, and if, in reaching that conclusion, the Supreme Court decides that the jurisdiction in question fell victim to an unconstitutional exercise of federal power, Section 5 will be set upon a course to being abolished altogether.
Moreover, should that occur, it is also academic that copycat jurisdictions will line up to be next at bat to strike a blow for injustice. A degree in constitutional law is not needed to read between the lines for what successful challenges portend for the Voting Rights Act.
Sherry Sherrill belongs to County Every Vote Buffalo, a civic education and empowerment group formed to address the disenfranchisement of minority voters.