Mississippi state senator Derrick T. Simmons and Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a professor of African-American history at Ohio State University. (Photos from left: facebook/DerrickTSimmons, history.osu.edu)
The Supreme Court’s decision last week to review the constitutionality of some key components of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has set off alarm bells among many Black elected officials and academics who contend that there is a good deal at stake.
The act provides federal oversight of election laws in states and municipalities that have been found to have practiced some form of discrimination in the past. If these states and municipalities decide to change their laws, they must seek federal approval, known as pre-clearance.
But many are concerned that the Supreme Court is reviewing a measure that was one of the bedrock achievements of the civil rights movement, fearing that it might invalidate that provision.
“For states like Mississippi and others who have had a history of discrimination and violating voting rights, it’s far too soon for the court to even consider doing away with the pre-clearance provision,” said Derrick T. Simmons, a state senator in Mississippi, in an interview with BET.com.
“Some would argue that there has been a lot of progress in the voting strength of African-Americans,” Simmons added. “But just because there has been that progress doesn’t serve as a rationale to do away with the Justice Department’s ability to review laws that would have an impact on voting rights.”
The law currently applies to nine states: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also applies to dozens of counties and municipalities in other states.
Critics of the law say they consider pre-clearance to represent an unnecessary federal intrusion into the rights of states to craft their own laws.
On the other hand, many civil rights leaders and academics say that the law remained crucial, especially in the aftermath of the 2012 elections. They point to the fact that federal courts played a major role in blocking voter identification laws from being enacted.
“These states have a long history of purposefully disenfranchising people of color and that hasn’t changed a great deal,” said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a professor of African-American History at Ohio State University, in an interview with BET.com.
“If anything, we need to be doubling down and strengthening the law,” said Jeffries, the author of the book Bloody Lowndes: Civil Rights and Black Power in Alabama's Black Belt. “This is the election where we saw laws that were passed in places like Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere – laws that were designed to disenfranchise African-American voters.
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