From The New York Times
Jerome Gray, a 74-year-old black man, has voted in every election since 1974 in
this verdant little outpost of some 4,000 people halfway between Mobile and
Montgomery. Casting a ballot, he said, is a way to honor the legacy of the Voting
Rights Act of 1965
, a civil rights landmark born from a bloody confrontation
70 miles north of here, in Selma.
The franchise remains fragile in Evergreen, Mr. Gray
said. Last summer, he was kicked off the voting rolls by a clerk who had
improperly culled the list based on utility records.
A three-judge federal court in Mobile barred the city
from using the new voting list, invoking Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act,
which requires many state and local governments, mostly in the South, to obtain
permission from the Justice Department or from a federal court in Washington
before making changes that affect voting.
That provision is also at the heart of one of the
marquee cases of the Supreme
’s term, Shelby
County v. Holder, No. 12-96,
which will be argued on Feb. 27. It was brought
by Shelby County, near Birmingham, and it contends that the provision has
outlived its purpose of protecting minority voters in an era when a black man
has been re-elected to the presidency.
The Voting Rights Act was a triumph of the civil
rights movement. It was a response, the Supreme Court said in
upholding it in 1966
, to “an insidious and pervasive evil which had been
perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious
defiance of the Constitution.”
Congress was entitled, the court went on, “to limit
its attention to the geographic areas where immediate action seemed necessary.”
Lawmakers chose the areas to be covered based on a formula that considered
whether they had used devices to discourage voting, like literacy tests, and
data from the 1964 election.
The court in Mobile this month said the case before
it, concerning Evergreen, was simple: because the city had not obtained
preclearance from federal authorities, it could not revise its voting list using
utility records. Nor could it use a municipal redistricting plan enacted by the
City Council that had concentrated black voters, who are in the majority, into
just two of the five districts, limiting black voting power.
It is not clear when the municipal election,
originally scheduled for last August, will be held.
A lawyer for Evergreen, James H. Anderson, said the
ruling was justified. “The way the voter list was recomposed was improper,” he
said. He added that the redistricting plan “could possibly be adopted by the
Justice Department, but we need to tweak it a little bit.” In a court filing on
Feb. 11, the city announced that it would create a third majority-black district
“to have a total black population in the vicinity of 65 percent.”
Critics of the Section 5 preclearance requirement call
it an unwarranted and discriminatory federal intrusion on state sovereignty and
a badge of shame for the affected jurisdictions that is no longer justified.
But Mr. Anderson said he welcomed the process, to a
point. “I think it plays a very valuable role, and I think we need it,” he said.
“Personally, I think we need it nationwide.”
The problem, he said, is that the provision applies in
only some parts of the country. “I think it’s discriminatory because it picks on
us Southerners,” he said.
Congress has repeatedly renewed the law, and for a
while it used fresher data with each renewal. But when Congress renewed the law
for 25 years in 2006, it made no changes to the list of jurisdictions covered by
Section 5 and used data from the 1972 election as a baseline.
The law applies to nine states — Alabama, Alaska,
Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia —
and to scores of counties and municipalities in other states.