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By Christine Dickason
February 21, 2013
Caption : What makes Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 so important?     


Next Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, one of the most highly anticipated and hotly debated Court cases during this term.

The case, brought by Shelby County, Alabama, challenges the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark of the Civil Rights movement. Opponents of Section 5, as it stands, argue that it's outdated and unnecessary while proponents point to its role as a protector of voting rights for all Americans, specifically minorities.

Here are five things you must know about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965:

1. Section 5 Prevents Voter Discrimination in Key Jurisdictions

Section 5 states that specific jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination cannot make changes to their voting laws without having permission from the U.S. Attorney General or a three-judge panel of the District Court of the District of Columbia. This notion, known as “preclearance," helps to prevent gerrymandering and disenfranchisement.

2. Section 5 Is ‘Appropriate Legislation’ Under the Constitution

The 15th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” It goes on to say, “The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Akhil Amar, a professor at Yale Law School, told the Los Angeles Times that this amendment clearly defines Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as “appropriate legislation.”

3. There Is Broad Support for Section 5

Support for Section 5 is not limited to a specific group or organization. In fact, a recent NAACP press release reported that more than two dozen briefs have been filed in support of Section 5 by a diverse range of people, including members of the House Committee on the Judiciary, historians, the National Bar Association, the AARP, the Hip-Hop Caucus, the League of Women Voters and other leading national organizations.

4. Voter Suppression Remains a Reality in Many Parts of the Country

Although critics of Section 5 argue that the measure has outlived its purpose, the recent rise of voter suppression efforts that swept the country prior the latest election season demonstrate the contrary. Since 2010, jurisdictions that are covered by Section 5 have taken steps to limit voting. Four states—Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas—have voter ID laws. Voter ID laws, specifically those that require valid photo identification, foster barriers to equal access to voting. These laws disproportionately hurt young people, African-Americans, seniors and lower-income folks. Nearly 11 percent of U.S. citizens do not have proper photo IDs.

5. Section 5 Works

Regardless of political affiliations or ideologies, it is hard to dispute the progress made under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in ensuring every citizen has equal access to voting. The diverse electorate has more people of color and youth voting than ever before—lending political power to these emerging demographics that have storied pasts of institutionalized disenfranchisement. For instance, the number of African Americans elected to office has grown from 300 in 1964 to more than 9,100 today.

But we still have a ways to go. Voter suppression is one of the most significant challenges that our nation faces today. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is just one of the safeguards in place that fights to ensure that every American has the ability to exercise one of the most important rights granted to citizens: the power to vote.

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