Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 14, 2013

Stephen Dick: Voting law needed more than ever

Stephen Dick
CNHI News Service

---- — What is the answer to Chief Justice John Roberts’ question?

During recent oral arguments for Shelby County (Ala.) vs. Holder — which challenges Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — Roberts asked the government counsel whether citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North. The counsel said he did not know, allowing Roberts and right-wingers everywhere the opportunity to snicker.

Section 5 has been the bane of Southern white conservatives since its passage in 1965. It says that states with a history of throwing up roadblocks so minorities will have a hard time to vote, must get federal approval for any changes in election laws.

In 2012, South Carolina and Texas — two of 16 states under Section 5 — were denied an attempt to pass voter ID laws as many northern states have done. Section 5 by the way primarily covers southern states but parts of some northern states — New York, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Dakota and California — are on the list. Despite the South bearing the brunt of Section 5, white Shelby County, a suburb of Birmingham, wants Section 5 done away with because the South, you know, is beyond its racist past.

Yeah, OK.

Calera is a town in Shelby County. White elected officials, alarmed at the rise of the black population, redrew its city boundaries in 2008, according to an article in The Nation. This move reduced that district’s voting age black population from 70 percent to 30 percent, meaning the only black city councilman lost his bid for reelection. After the election, the Justice Department negated the results and another election was held, which put the black city councilman back in office.

Sam Bagenstos, a former attorney general for civil rights, told The Nation that Calera is a “textbook example of why you need Section 5.”

Ed Blum, director of a conservative legal fund, wanted to go after Section 5 and used Calera as his goat. Blum was backed by the biggest names in conservative bankrollers, and now it’s up to the Supreme Court to decide Section 5’s fate.

Roberts’ question is more hyperbole than honestly asked. He must know that racism exists throughout the country, yet he wants to pin down degrees on racism. He also must know that the South has traditionally led the way in race-based discrimination traced back to only giving up slavery at the point of a musket.

Alabama helped serve up the Voting Rights Act with its white thugs beating up civil rights activists in Selma and other infamous acts. Birmingham, the Nation points out, was once known as Bombingham because of attacks on blacks. Are we really supposed to think that racism is a thing of the past?

In 2010, states with Republican majorities began passing voting laws — such as voter ID, limiting early voting and just about anything that could be used to keep minorities from casting a ballot. Now the South wants in on the fun as white conservatives everywhere seek to use disenfranchisement as a way to win elections. Their policies are so noxious and self-serving that they can’t win elections without whittling away at the 15th Amendment.

A columnist in the Wall Street Journal recently wrapped up a clueless rant on Section 5 by writing, “Yes, a Civil War was fought. It ended in 1865. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. Because this is the United States, it is time to move on.”

Isn’t this the perfect argument for Section 5? The 15th Amendment was passed in 1870 and for 95 years whites in the South used poll taxes, literacy tests and all other Jim Crow laws they could come up with to keep blacks from voting.

Because this is the United States, Section 5 should be expanded to all 50 states, neutering Republican state legislators in their quest to roll back the clock to a time when they could legally discriminate against people of color.

Stephen Dick is an editor at The Herald Bulletin in Anderson, Ind. Contact him at