When President Obama was asked about Section 5 of the historic Voting Rights Act being voted on Wednesday by the Supreme Court, he responded with "It's not the only tool that we have — it's a critical tool, but it's not the only tool." Obama’s right: while Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is not the only way to protect elderly, young, and people of color from being marginalized and targeted by unfair voting legislation, it certainly helps. Here’s why:
Section 5 requires federal oversight of states with a history of disenfranchising marginalized groups. The states covered by Section 5 have higher incidences of voter barriers than the states not covered by Section 5. In spite of Republican protestations that the South has changed since the Voting Rights Act was forged (and no one is disputing that), the South simply has not changed enough.
While there are certainly incidents of voter suppression all over the country, those districts covered by Section 5 are disproportionately likely to engage in the practice. Shelby County, the district that brought the suit, said "it is unjust to continue to subject Alabama to Section 5, requiring the state to seek prior approval from the U.S. Justice Department for changes to the conduct of its elections." Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor immediately challenged this assertion, specifically regarding Shelby County as "the epitome of what caused this law in the first place."
Colorlines backs up Sotomayor’s consternation, reporting findings from Ellen D. Katz at the University of Michigan. Katz found that "the jurisdictions covered by Section 5 were more than five-and-a-half times as likely to be sued for violations than non-covered jurisdictions."
The challenge to The Voting Rights Act comes at a time when voter suppression is particularly concerning: the November presidential elections demonstrated that restrictions on early voting, more restrictive voter ID laws, and practices that create voter dilution do little to stop already negligible rates of voter fraud. Incidentally, of course, these restrictions do happen to impede non-Republican voters from getting to the polls.
In essence, Section 5 is doing what it is supposed to be doing in a time where voting rights are being challenged more than ever: protecting voters at risk of being disenfranchised.
The days of soap tests and poll taxes are gone from the South, but that certainly does not mean that the voting rights of people of color are adequately protected. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is not perfect, nor is it the final safeguard for typically disenfranchised voters. However, it is an important part of making voting accessible to all, and by striking this provision down, neither disenfranchised voters nor the South will greatly benefit.