Civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), visited the U.S. Supreme Court today as justices prepared to hear arguments challenging provisions from the Voting Rights Act.
A venerated figure in the fight for equality during the 1950s and 1960s, Lewis helped lead the historic voting rights march in Selma, Alabama. At the time, more than 600 protesters were met by state troopers and an attack on the marchers ensued. The day became known as Bloody Sunday, and it was the impetus behind the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which made it illegal to deny any person the right to vote based of race.
“The record of present day voting rights violations that Congress amassed during the reauthorization period [of the act] makes it very clear,” Lewis said. “American citizens are still struggling today for free and fair access to the ballot box.”
Challenging the “preclearance” provision in Section 5 of the act is Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, an Austin, Texas-based waste collection and public works company. The provision requires jurisdictions with a proven history of voting discrimination receive approval from the Justice Department or the U.S. Federal Court, before changing any voting rights laws. Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Louisiana are some of the southern and Midwestern states impacted by law.
Set up to provide services to about 3,500 residents, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One holds elections for board of directors, and is covered by Section 5 of the Act since it is a local jurisdiction in Texas.
“None of the southern state governments [that are impacted by the provision] are contesting [it],” says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. “They’re satisfied with the preclearance provision,” Bositis adds, explaining that the law was passed with overwhelming political support.
The claim, which was mounted in 2006, just days after the expiring sections of the Voting Rights Act were reauthorized for 25 more years, could undo decades of voting rights laws if the court rules in favor of Northwest Austin.
The Supreme Court has twice upheld the constitutionality of Section 5 – once, for the original act in 1966 and once in 1980.
“Right here in Georgia we had our own problems, not just in 1968, but in 2008,” Lewis said. “Citizens and the federal government raised questions about voting procedures in Georgia. This constitutional challenge is very important. It is like a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act.”