The Past Is Not Past: Why We Still Need Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act
Today the state of South Carolina sued the Justice Department for blocking its new law requiring citizens to show government-issued photo identification to vote. This is just the latest broadside in what promises to be a protracted battle over the constitutionality of state voting laws and federal protections against discrimination.
For decades, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has been a cornerstone of civil rights law. The provision requires certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to get federal “preclearance” before enforcing new voting laws. Today, opponents of the law are trying to dismantle this foundation of our democracy, bringing several court challenges in recent months. They argue that, 50 years after the worst abuses of the Jim Crow era, the law should be struck down as unconstitutional, and that federal protection of minority rights in these jurisdictions is no longer needed. Do they have a point?
To paraphrase William Faulkner, the past is not past.
A quick glance at the wave of suppressive voting laws enacted last year illustrates clearly how important Section 5 continues to be. South Carolina, a state still covered by Section 5, offers an excellent case in point.
If the United States awarded medals for voter suppression, South Carolina would compete for the gold. In the last two years, South Carolina has debated and approved numerous laws that would cripple the ability of minority voters to participate. In applying Section 5 to challenge the voter-identification law, the Justice Department found it could disenfranchise more than 80,000 African-American voters. Twenty-five percent of African American citizens don’t have the requisite government-issued photo identification, compared with eight percent of white citizens.
Laws restricting voting rights threaten to disenfranchise up to 5 million American citizens in 2012.
The South Carolina legislature is now considering a stronger bill that would require would-be voters to present documentary proof of citizenship, such as a passport or birth certificate, in order to register to vote. These documents are hard to procure for many people, such as older African-Americans, who were never given birth certificates because of the racist legal regime under which they were born.