Section 5 should remain in voting law

Published 1:00 pm Saturday, March 2, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that seeks to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Leaders from Shelby County, Ala., are suing the U.S. Justice Department in an effort to end the practice of preclearance, which requires states under Section 5 authority to seek approval from the Justice Department for any changes to election-related laws such as redistricting or moving polling places. This could be a landmark case with significant impact on Mississippi.

While the Supreme Court has heard several challenges to preclearance practices of the Voting Rights Act over the years, it has never come close to striking down Section 5. However, in 2009 while voting 8-1 to uphold Section 5, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the section raises “serious constitutional questions” and “must be justified by current needs.” Many legal scholars believe that this signals a growing shift toward a majority of the justices’ willingness to seriously consider doing away with preclearance requirements.

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In fact, some of those same legal scholars say that the Court’s decision to merely hear the case signals that Section 5 is in danger of being struck down.

While we won’t get into trying to predict what the Supreme Court will do, we sincerely hope that it leaves Section 5 intact. This state and this nation have come a long way, but preclearance requirements still serve a valuable purpose and should be allowed to do so.

However, we agree with Roberts that Section 5 does raise serious questions, and we agree with those who point out some of the disadvantages of preclearance that need addressing.

Local governments are almost helpless when it comes to making commonsense decisions related to something as simple as addressing deficiencies in a polling place because the cost to seek any kind of preclearance is more than most local budgets can bear. …

Individual municipalities and counties can already seek exemptions — called bailouts — from Section 5 requirements. In fact, the number of bailouts granted have increased significantly over the recent years. The Obama Administration has awarded more exemptions since 2008 than any previous administration. …

Section 5 can be best tested through the continued pursuit of exemptions, but for now, we hope the U.S. Supreme Court will let it stand. The need is not nearly as great as when Section 5 was originally adopted, but a need still does exist.