Expand Section 5

Apparently even the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court makes factual errors. During last week’s proceedings on the fate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice John Roberts compared the turnout ratios among white and black voters in Massachusetts to those in Mississippi. Roberts asserted that the Northern blue state has a worse record than a red state that only recently officially abolished slavery, on Feb. 7 of this year, as evidence that times have changed to the degree that there is no longer a need to protect voting rights for minorities in the nine Southern states covered by Section 5.

According to officials in Massachusetts, the chief justice got it wrong. Post-election reports indicate that the 2012 election saw almost no difference between black and white voter turnout. Data shows that Charlestown, for example, which is 80 percent white, saw 68 percent of voters cast ballots, and that Roxbury, which is predominantly black, had 64 percent of voters turn out.


The chief justice’s underlying assumption is also wrong. Increases in registration and turnout do not prove Section 5 is no longer needed. His premise ignores the mountains of evidence from the last several election cycles, which suggest the problem has actually metastasized throughout our country. While the South has changed, so too have the tactics used to disenfranchise African-Americans, as well as Latino and other minority voters. The record increases in minority voter registration and turnout have actually inspired a whole new generation of measures designed to pervert the law and blunt the impact of America’s growing minority population.

As Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out, Section 5 recognizes that tactics can evolve “faster than litigation permitted to catch the new forms of discriminatory practices that were being developed. As the courts struck down one form, the States would find another.” Just as a number of states re-wrote their constitutions to include literacy tests and poll taxes in 1965, today minorities in America face a myriad of nefariously cumbersome, costly and time-consuming barriers to register, cast their ballot and have that vote counted. 

As of November 2012, 30 states have passed — although not all have been allowed to implement — some form of restrictive voter ID laws targeting African-American and Latino voters areas across our country. Today, instead of billy clubs and literacy tests, discrimination and intimidation tactics involve polling location changes, machine shortages and shorter voting hours — resulting in wait times for minorities that can be twice as long as for whites in some areas — vote purges, misinformation that is sent to voters with Latino-sounding last names and state legislators who admit that changes in voter ID laws were intended to dilute the impact of the minority vote. 

Across the country, newly gerrymandered districts and redistricting schemes — such as the Shelby County proposal that would have cut the proportion of African-American voters from more than two-thirds to just one-third — threaten to dilute the electoral impact of increases in minority voter registration and turnout. In 2012, the Voting Rights Act not only helped to protect the rights of minority voters from Texas to Pennsylvania, from Florida to Alabama, from Mississippi to Wisconsin, but also contributed to record minority turnout in the presidential election. All of which suggests that the question Roberts and others should be asking is: Why Section 5 shouldn’t be extended to all 50 states going forward?

Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.