The U.S. Department of Justice has gone after a small town in Alabama’s redistricting that seemingly benefits Caucasians and unfairly impacted the black vote.
Eric Holder, the attorney general, mailed the Calera, Ala., city attorney notifying him that the new map of the city that cuts the proportion of black registered voters from two-thirds to one-thirds was not done in good faith. The three-page letter emailed to the Calera city attorney on Aug. 25, 2008, voiding the new map.
The letter set off sociopolitical shockwaves and could wind up being the most important challenge in years to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A lawsuit later brought by Shelby County, where Calera is situated, seeks to strike down the law’s requirement that Alabama and other states with a history of discrimination obtain federal approval for any changes to districting and ballot rules. They argue that this federal “preclearance” obligation, mandated by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, is antiquated, unfair and an unconstitutional relic of an Old Deep South that no longer exists.
The Shelby County v. Holder conundrum is poised to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. Last month a federal appeals court in Washington rejected the claim and upheld the Section 5 preclearance requirement, saying Congress had enough evidence of recent racial discrimination to justify reauthorizing the law when it did so in 2006. Racial discrimination in voting is “one of the gravest evils that Congress can seek to redress,” U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Tatel declared for the court majority.
But Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to re-examine the preclearance rule, which covers all or part of 16 states, most of them in the South. In deciding another case three years ago, he wrote: “Things have changed in the South.” He suggested that the provision may no longer be needed.