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Will Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act Remain in Effect for Athens, Ga.?

Will it be determined to be unconstitutional?


Three days after the re-election of America’s African-American president, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the law designed to ensure equal voting rights. It was enacted in 1965.

The suit brought by Shelby County, Ala., claims that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Law is unconstitutional. However, UGA political science professors Karen Owen and Charles Bullock III believe that the current sociopolitical landscape might cause the Supreme Court to skirt the issue.

Section 5 requires states with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before making changes to how they hold elections. Politicians in the affected states believe government supervision in this area is no longer necessary, claiming that discrimination in the polls is a thing of the past.

“I think they (Supreme Court) would be under a lot of political pressure to keep it (Section 5),” said Karen Owen, a 32-year-old political science instructor at UGA specializing in American institutional politics.

In the wake of President Obama’s reelection, Owen believes there would be too much of a backlash from Obama supporters for the Supreme Court to overturn the law.

However, Owen says that having five conservative justices on the current court moves it to the “right of the Sandra Day O'Connor days of the political center.” She thinks they may be willing to limit the scope of the provision, but not entirely overturn it.

The issue has been brought up in Congress and the Supreme Court before, but both Congress and Supreme Court have only danced around it.

According to Owen, the trigger mechanism that is used to get clearance from the government “looks a little outdated.”

The trigger mechanism essentially allows the federal courts to place certain jurisdictions with histories of discriminations under the rule of section 5.

“It (trigger) still relies on either elections held in 1964 or 1968 or 1972,” said Charles Bullock III, a 70-year-old political science professor at UGA specializing in southern politics. “The most recent data for any of the triggers subject to section 5 is now 40 years old.”

Without the supervision of the federal government, one might think that there would be a higher risk of gerrymandering. Bullock believes that minorities would still be protected from gerrymandering under section 2 of the law.

“If a jurisdiction were to go through and go out of its way to disadvantage minorities, minorities would still have legal protection under section 2,” said Bullock.

Section 2 stipulates that plaintiffs can establish a violation of the law without proving discriminatory purpose. It thus concerns itself more with discriminatory effects.

Even with the protection of sections 2 and 5, Athens has been no stranger to redistricting that disadvantages minorities.

Despite redistricting the county in a way that significantly weakened the vote of African-Americans, Republican incumbent Doug McKillip was defeated by Republican challenger Regina Quick in the primaries for State House this election cycle. Regardless, the distinction between redistricting and gerrymandering has become quite ambiguous.

Three days after the re-election of America’s African-American president, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the law designed to ensure equal voting rights. It was enacted in 1965.

The suit brought by Shelby County, Ala., claims that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Law is unconstitutional. However, UGA political science professors Karen Owen and Charles Bullock III believe that the current sociopolitical landscape might cause the Supreme Court to skirt the issue.

Section 5 requires states with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval before making changes to how they hold elections. Politicians in the affected states believe government supervision in this area is no longer necessary, claiming that discrimination in the polls is a thing of the past.

“I think they (Supreme Court) would be under a lot of political pressure to keep it (Section 5),” said Karen Owen, a 32-year-old political science instructor at UGA specializing in American institutional politics.

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gary grossman November 28, 2012 at 12:28 PM
I am surprised by Prof. Bullock's contention that we don't need the protection of the Voter's Right's Act, regardless of whether the data are old or new. Yes of course we should be basing discrimination findings on current data, but all one has to do is look at the fact that there is only one white Democratic House of Representatives member from the South to know that racial discrimination and current partisan redistricting found in Georgia and most other states represent de facto discrimination. Minorities in this country vote overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates but most Southern state legislatures are controlled by Republicans who set redistricting boundaries. Without the protection of the Voter's Rights Act there would be few minority (=Democratic) districts in the South. All one has to do is look at John Barrow's district to see the extremes that Republicans will go to, to "redistrict" a congressman out of an election. And for those of you with short memories, take a look at the districts at Athens and ask yourself if these represent "communities" or any other real entity. Remember Athens has been split repeatedly to minimize the impacts of Democratic voters. We need to implement non-partisan redistricting before we even talk about repealing the Voter's Rights Act.
Rebecca McCarthy November 28, 2012 at 01:02 PM
It is incredible how the legislature has worked so hard to diminish the voting power of the smallest (and perhaps, the bluest) county in the state. Do you think we get punished for being Democratic?
Roger Clegg November 28, 2012 at 01:58 PM
Here's why Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in unconstitutional and ought to be struck down by the Supreme Court: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/nov/14/overturn-unconstitutional-voting-rights-act/

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