Dolan: Voting Rights Act remains vital, constitutional

On Feb. 27, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in what is sure to be one of the most hotly debated cases before the Supreme Court this term. Shelby County v. Holder is a dispute over whether or not Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is constitutionally sound. 

Section 5 gives the federal government oversight of places with a history of racially charged voter discrimination, like Shelby County, Ala., requiring these areas to get approval from Washington before changing or creating new polling procedures. 

Not only do I contend that Section 5 is constitutional, I feel it would be simply unwise for the Supreme Court to rule in favor of Shelby County. We may have come a long way since the 1960s, but racial discrimination is still a serious issue in this country, especially in many of the counties to which Section 5 applies.

When the Voting Rights Act was first passed, it had a huge impact on voting procedures for minorities by doing away with tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests that had previously kept minorities from voting in many areas of the country. 

After Congress reauthorized Section 5 in 2006, Shelby County officials filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the federal oversight is an unnecessary burden in this day and age. 

What the current debate comes down to is whether or not voter discrimination and racism are still significant problems in counties and localities like Shelby. Of course, there are two sides to every story, and in this case, the two sides are heavily at odds.

Rev. Harry Jones, a civil rights activist in Shelby County, claims that the white majority in Shelby “have painted a picture to make the outside world believe that racism is no more, but if you dig beneath the surface I think you’ll find what you are looking for.”

On the other hand, county attorney Frank Ellis Jr. is quoted as saying, “It’s hard to find that there’s any discrimination here, and certainly there’s nothing in the congressional record.”

This case is representative of the issues minorities still face nationwide. Do we really still live in a time where we need extra governmental measures to ensure that minorities have fair and equal access to polls? Unfortunately, I feel that these measures are more than warranted. I also know I am one of many who share this sentiment. 

Ernest Montgomery, a Calera City councilman, also fears the consequences of removing Section 5. 

“I think of the possibility of what could happen if Section 5 could go away – that some of the old mindsets would kind of fall back into place,” he said. 

If Section 5 is done away with, some of these traditional hotbeds of racial discrimination could easily reinstitute voting procedures designed to reduce minority turnout.

While I would argue that race relations in this country do seem to be ever improving, I do not think that we are yet at a point where we can say that racial discrimination and racial bloc voting are things of the past. Until we reach that point, I will continue to support measures like Section 5 that aim to give minorities a fair opportunity to cast their votes.