Since 1965, the Voting Rights Act has paid special attention to 9 states. Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia have to get preapproval from the federal government before they make voting related changes. This includes changing polling places, having special elections, redrawing district lines and changing the date of a vote. Before any location in these states can proceed, they need to get the okay from Uncle Sam to make sure the changes aren’t racially motivated or disparaging.
In this day and age, are these states the most racist in the country? This is one of the basic questions before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric Holder, Jr., Attorney General. As Chief Justice John Roberts asked during oral arguments, “Is it the submission of the government that citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North?”
The Voting Rights Act has many provisions to prevent disparaging certain classes of citizens from voting and representation. Under Section 2, “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” This includes things like literacy tests, and also examines changing places of polling or election dates to whether they have an effect of disparaging based on race. For example, moving a polling place away from a place with a large black population would be examined, if not denied. If a group feels they have been the victim of such treatment, they can file suit and take the issue to court. As a whole the Voting Rights Act is a tool for the federal government to enforce the 14th and 15th amendments. Section 5, though, is special.
Under Section 5, several states which historically went to particularly large lengths to disparage voters were singled out for extra requirements. The need for this arose out of states instituting disparaging rules so fast that by the time a suit was filed and a practice found discriminatory, a new discriminatory voting practice was already being implemented. Congress developed a formula to determine which states would require preapproval before they implemented new voting practices. The formula, laid out in Section 4, considers previous record of discriminatory tests, voting registration and participation by race, and determinations of the Attorney General. This formula has not been updated since 1975 (based off of 1972 voting data). In 2006, the Voting Rights Act was renewed as is, without a single vote against it.
Now the formula comes before the Supreme Court. In 2009, Justice Kennedy remarked that “Congress has made a finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio.” Is this merited? During oral arguments, Justice Scalia noted that Massachusetts has the worst ratio of white to African American voter turnout, while Mississippi has the best. Massachusetts also had the most disproportionate voter registration, though Mississippi had the third worst. Chief Justice Roberts noted that “The racial gap in voter registration and turnout is lower in the states originally covered by Section 5 than it is nationwide.” Certainly Section 5 has done a good job at achieving this goal. Instead of being an argument for continuing on the current course, however, it raises the question of whether to expand Section 5 to all 50 states.
A 2012 Harvard study examined the use of racist terms in Google searches as it related to geographic location and voting trends. The study aimed to find the impact of racial animus on a black presidential candidate, namely Barack Obama in 2008. The study used the 2004 Kerry votes as a baseline and found a significant correlation between the prevalence of racist terms concerning blacks in a location and reduced votes for Obama.
Interestingly, the study found that the most racist state by this metric was West Virginia, which is not included under Section 5. Only four of the Section 5 states made the top 10, and Alaska ranked 41. The study found reduced democrat turnout and increased republican turnout in these areas, as well as a number of other factors. The difference was primarily driven by differences in the voting habits of whites. The study estimated that prejudice cost Obama between 3.1% and 5.0% of the national popular vote in 2008.
Certainly, racism does still exist in today’s day and age. Preventing voters from being disenfranchised is crucial to the functioning of our system of representation. The question at hand is whether the Section 5 medicine fits the disease. If so, is it being prescribed to the right patients?
Yale Law School, Voting Rights Act of 1965: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/voting_rights_1965.asp
The New York Times, Justices to Revisit Voting Act in View of a Changing South: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/10/us/supreme-court-to-revisit-voting-rights-act.html?_r=0
The New York Times, Voting Act Challenge Hinges on a Formula: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/us/politics/challenge-to-voting-rights-act-hinges-on-a-formula.html?pagewanted=print
The Huffington Post, Voting Rights Act, Full Circle: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jotaka-l-eaddy/voting-rights-act-full-ci_b_2775881.html
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Court Hears Arguments on Voting Rights Act: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/national-govt-politics/court-hears-arguments-on-voting-rights-act/nWbzk/
The Supreme Court, Oral Arguments Shelby v. Holder: http://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/12-96.pdf
The New York Times, How Racist Are We? http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/09/how-racist-are-we-ask-google/
Harvard, The Effects of Racial Animus on a Black Presidential Candidate: http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~sstephen/papers/RacialAnimusAndVotingSethStephensDavidowitz.pdf
U.S. Department of Justice, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act: http://www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/sec_5/about.php