Shelby County wins challenge to Voting Rights Act

Published 5:36 pm Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday overturned a section of the Voting Rights Act that requires governments, including those in Alabama, to obtain pre-clearance from the U.S. Justice Department before making changes to voting procedure or electoral maps.

Shelby County challenged two sections of the Act: Section 4, which defined “covered jurisdictions,” including Alabama and 16 other states with a history of voting discrimination; and Section 5, which requires those jurisdictions to obtain pre-clearance.

The Supreme Court ruled Section 4, which was passed in 1965, is unconstitutional.

“Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically,” the court’s decision read. “In the covered jurisdictions, voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”

Chilton County Probate Judge Bobby Martin said the provision forced local officials to obtain permission before making voting procedure changes such as updating voting machines, closing precincts or moving polling places.

“Anything we did, we had to get pre-cleared,” Martin said.

Martin pointed to changing the name of a polling place last year as an example of a change that required pre-clearance. Officials wanted to change the polling place’s name from “Veterans Club” to “American Legion Post 6″ to reflect how most residents were familiar with the location.

Martin said it usually took five or six months to receive a response from the Justice Department.

The court did not invalidate Section 5 but said Congress would have to find a different test to decide which governments would need pre-clearance if the measure is to remain in effect.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion and was joined by justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley and other Republican officials praised the decision.

“Alabama has made tremendous progress over the past 50 years, and this decision by the U.S. Supreme Court recognizes that progress,” Bentley said in a release. “We will not tolerate discrimination in Alabama. Fifty years ago, there were valid reasons this law was passed. But even though conditions changed over time, the Section 4 test of the Voting Rights Act did not.”

Democrats, meanwhile, expressed disappointment in the decision.

“I am extremely disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision [Tuesday], and, as Democrats, we will continue to fight for the voting rights of all Alabamians,” Judge Mark Kennedy, chairman of the Alabama Democratic Majority, said in a release. “The right to vote and to choose who will represent us is the sacred right of all Americans, and we must not forget how hard many Americans fought–African-Americans and women in particular–to secure that right.”