Maryann Tobin

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments from Shelby County, Ala., which will decide the fate of anti-discrimination protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Shelby County will argue that times have changed and discrimination against black voters is no longer an issue that requires federal oversight to insure equal access to the polls.

If the Supreme Court decides in favor of Shelby County, the state of Alabama will be able to change its voting laws without first getting approval of the Department of Justice.

In addition to implementing strict new voter ID laws, Alabama would be free to unilaterally create a variety of barriers to voting rights that it could claim are not discriminatory against black voters, despite appearances to the contrary.

For example, in the 2012 elections, Florida Gov. Rick Scott decided to eliminate early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, which is traditionally the day African American churchgoers board "Souls to the Polls" buses that take them to vote. With no obvious reason to cut early voting on that particular day, critics called Scott’s move a deliberate effort to target and suppress the African American vote.

Alabama is one of nine states covered in its entirety by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Several other states, including Florida, have anti-discrimination voting protections on a county-by-county basis.

If Alabama wins it case, lawmakers would be exempt from Section 5 provisions. This would enable them to limit or end early voting hours, enact strict voter ID laws, as well as be free to redraw congressional district lines.

Before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law, some states, particularly in the South, found ways to prevent African Americans from voting. They used poll taxes, literacy tests, Jim Crow laws, intimidation, and even violence to limit black voter access to the polls.

Congress has renewed the Voting Right Act of 1965 four times since its creation. The most recent was in 2006, when a 25-year extension was approved with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Voter suppression was a significant issue in the 2012 elections, so it may not be a coincidence that the Supreme Court decided to hear the Alabama case this year. The decision could pave the way for other states to undo the legal protections against discrimination instituted during the 1960s, when the country endured riots and nationwide turmoil during the height of the civil rights movement.

It could be argued that in 2012, voter suppression was an issue more volatile than ever in many parts of the country, not just the south. Long lines created by cuts to early voting hours and confusion over new voter ID laws made America’s democracy look utterly flawed in the eyes of the world.

America already has felt the effects of the 2010 Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission case, which effectively declared corporations people and allowed a flood of secret money to pollute the US election process in 2010 and 2012. Now we are a nation on the brink of what could be viewed as permission to give states like Alabama the right to discriminate freely against African American voters.

All signs point to democracy undoing itself through its judicial branch should the Supreme Court decide to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Without the unfettered right to vote, America has no democracy.

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Sources and more info:

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US Department of Justice

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