Speaker Reggie Robinson spoke last night about the constitutionality of the Voter Rights Act of 1965, as part of the Dorothy Thompson lecture series. Recently, sections of the act have been called unconstitutional. According to Robinson, the decision was unnecessary and restrictions on voter legislation are still needed.
The Voter Rights Act of 1965 was created to combat states making it hard for African-Americans to vote. The act was directed towards southern states who had a history of using tests as prerequisites for voting. For example, several states had literacy tests in which the easier tests were given to whites while harder tests, those that even an average citizen would likely fail, were given to African-Americans. Previously, with the 15th Amendment, Congress had promised to stop this sort of action.
"But it was a broken promise," Robinson said. "They made acts to make real on that promise but they were ineffective."
The Voter Rights Act included three important sections, according to Robinson. The second section is like any other act, which means that the act is permanent and applicable to the entire nation. It is the fourth and fifth acts that have been called into question recently in the Shelby County vs. Holder case.
According to Robinson, section four creates a sort of formula that draws attention to states or counties that currently or have previously restricted minorities from voting, by means such as the literacy test. Originally, six states were targeted: Alabama, Georgia, Louisana, South Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia. Over the years, three more states were added: Texas, Arizona and Alaska. Counties can be just as likely to be included in section four, even though the overall state may not fit the formula.
Section five describes what happens when these states and counties want to change a voter law or make new legislation. It has to go through the Department of Justice before it can be enacted, or go through "pre-clearance." Robinson has shown that over the years the number of rejected voter legislation has been increasing, which he sees as proof that the act is still needed.
In order to "bail out" of this special case, states and counties must prove that for the last ten years they have not made any legislation against minorities and are trying to help include them in elections and voter registrations.
Section five can make even the simplest of voting legislation difficult. Robinson used the example that if Riley County wanted to redraw its line due to demographic change, it could with relative ease. However, counties in these special states cannot and must go through the arduous process of pre-clearance, which may not be passed anyway.
This was an important point in the Northwest Austin Municipal District No. One v. Holder case in 2009. According to Robinson, a county in the northwest region of Austin, Texas wanted to bail out of the special inclusion clause of section five, even though Texas as a state still fit under the formula of section four. This county, however, did not and showed that they had been increasing minority involvement in voter registration, which opted out of section five.
The Supreme Court decided to rule in favor of the county and voiced concerns about the constitutionality of section four. The vote was 8-1, with only one dissenter, Justice Clarence Thomas, who said that both sections are unconstitutional. However, nothing was done about the act.
"They needed to figure it out and repair the tears before a case breaks it," Robinson said.
This last year, one case did break it. Shelby County v. Holder was almost exactly like the previous case, except Shelby County challenged the constitutionality of sections four and five. On June 25, the Supreme Court declared in a 5-4 vote that section four was unconstitutional and that no formula is needed to target specific states about their voter legislation.
This is particularly concerning for some because Texas, one of the the previously targeted states, is now pressing for stricter voter identifications.
"The decision was ridiculous," Cameron Leader-Picone, professor of African American literature, said. "The Supreme Court has no right to shoot down that law. Congress is the only one to decide if it was unconstitutional, and there’s no reason behind it to invalidate the act."
However, there is some hope that the act can be revised so that voter rights are still protected. There are some members of Congress, such as Representative John Lewis, who was one of the instrumental leaders of the Civl Rights movement in the ’60s, who want to go back and revise the act.
According to Robinson, the Supreme Court did not declare the fifth section unconstitutional. As such, this section can still be used if a state is found to be guilty of violating voters’ rights. However, since the fourth section’s formula has been thrown out, a new system must be devised. To do this, Congress can look towards the previously overlooked third section.
This section allows for a state to be bailed back in if there is proof that a state deliberately made laws to restrict certain minorities from voting. However, the intentions of legislators may be hard to prove and the section sets a high bar that may need to be revised if Congress decides to rewrite the Voter Rights Act.
"Texas has a good case to be bailed in," Leader-Picone said. "They’ve explicitly said that they’re targeting Hispanics. But I think section three really sets the bar up high, and it will be hard to get proof."
Overall, Robinson brought insight about the issue to many students and highlighted key points that cleared up the controversy around the act.
"I didn’t know a lot about this when I came in," said Sydney Rugan, sophomore in public relations. "He gave a good perspective on the different sections and what will happen next now that the fourth section isn’t in place."