When the Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday (February 27) in a direct challenge to a central part of the Voting Rights Act, it will once again wade into a decades-old dispute over voting rights that has its roots in the country’s long history of racism.
But in asking whether a key part of the federal law is constitutional, the court also will reopen a debate that long predates the measure’s enactment in 1965. It’s an argument that was at the heart of the U.S. Civil War, and one that has seen resurgence in recent years as Republicans around the country bristle at what they perceive as meddling from Washington.
That debate is the battle over states’ rights.
On its face, the challenge to the Voting Rights Act is about how state and local officials run elections. But states’ rights have underpinned much of the opposition to the law since it was first enacted, and Wednesday’s hearing will feature familiar arguments.
The issue is Section 5 of the law, which requires all or part of 16 states to get any changes to election law pre-approved by either the Justice Department or a federal court. That requirement, based on findings of discrimination and racism years ago, applies to most every aspect of elections, from technical changes to the high-profile issue of photo ID requirements that recently spawned court battles for states such as Texas and South Carolina. The challenge was brought by Shelby County, Alabama, and argues that the act’s preclearance requirement is unconstitutional on its face, no matter how it’s employed.