Your Feb. 27 editorial, “Unfair presumption of guilt,” suggests that our defense of Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act (VRA), which requires “covered” states and jurisdictions like South Carolina to get approval from the Department of Justice for any voting changes, is based on outdated evidence.
Actually, and regrettably, throughout the jurisdictions to which Section 5 applies, voting remains divided along racial lines. Congress found that in 2000, only 8 percent of African-Americans were elected from districts where white voters comprise the majority. At the same time, no Native Americans or Hispanics had been elected to office from a majority white district.
As recently as the 2012 presidential election, politicians attempted to chip away at our fundamental right to vote — and overwhelmingly, people of color were the target. The Department of Justice recently rejected Texas’ congressional and senate redistricting plans because the legislature acted deliberately to ignore the dramatic growth in the Hispanic population. The pre-clearance process helped reshape Florida’s early voting period and defeat its restrictions on registration drives. We faced challenges in the last legislative session in South Carolina to our own community registration drives; fortunately, these did not succeed.
The voter photo ID law did get passed, however. After failing to receive pre-clearance from the DOJ, South Carolina went to court to receive approval for its law to require photo ID for voting. The court refused to allow the law to be implemented for the November 2012 election and forced the state to modify the law to comply with Section 5 and insure that it would not have had a disproportionate impact on our state’s African-American voters. Only Section 5 mitigated the discriminatory impact of this new voting hurdle.
While many of us hope that an early voting bill will pass in this legislative session, the current House version adds restrictions — unnecessarily and unfairly — on absentee ballots. Without Section 5 scrutiny, challenges to such attempts to limit voter access will be far more difficult. Contrary to what your editorial asserts, piecemeal litigation under Section 2 will be a severely inadequate remedy to protect our fundamental right to vote.
Unlike South Carolina, not all jurisdictions covered under the VRA are chafing under its purview. Mississippi, which has the largest portion of African-American voters of any state in the country, and North Carolina, which has the seventh largest, joined California and New York in voicing their support of the law. In their amicus brief to the Supreme Court, these states characterized the burdens Section 5 imposes as “minimal” and lauded the provision for helping their states move closer to their “goal of eliminating racial discrimination and inequities in voting.”
Jurisdictions that believe Section 5 should no longer apply to them already have a remedy. They can “bail out” from the statute’s coverage if they can demonstrate that they’ve remained free of discriminatory voting laws or policies within the preceding 10 years, have complied with the VRA and have made efforts to ensure equal access to the ballot. Since 1984, the attorney general has consented to every bailout application, as recently as December 2012.
Should South Carolina be exempted from the requirement to comply with Section 5? We hope that in time, our state will have such a clean record. But until that time comes, we need the robust protections of this critical legislation.
ACLU of South Carolina