WASHINGTON WATCH: Voting Rights Are Still Under Attack; Supreme Court To Look At Section 5 Of The Voting Rights Act (VIDEO)

Over the past two years, attacks on voters’ rights led by Republicans at the state level have made it clear to most Americans how easy it can be to disenfranchise people when they’re not paying attention.

Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So, what does that mean to your voting rights, going forward? Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and Dr. Paul Butler, professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center joined Roland Martin on the set of Washington Watch to discuss this and more.

ATTY. GEN. ERIC HOLDER:  The attempts to suppress the vote in the last election were largely unsuccessful.  There’re other states that are passing laws now, and to the extent that we think they contravene federal law, we will oppose them, as we did — as we did last year.

[END OF VIDEO CLIP.]

MR. MARTIN:  Welcome back.

Over the past two years, attacks on voters’ rights led by Republicans at the state level have made it clear to most Americans how easy it can be to disenfranchise people when they’re not paying attention.

Next month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  So, what does that mean to your voting rights, going forward?  Here to talk about that [are] Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Voting Rights Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and Dr. Paul Butler, professor at Georgetown University’s Law Center.

Folks, welcome to the show.

MS. MARCIA JOHNSON-BLANCO:  Thank you so much.

MR. MARTIN:  So, this particular case that’s going forward, there’s a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which gives the federal government oversight, if you will, of those states with a prior history of racial discrimination when it came to voting.  So, whatever changes are made, they have to get prior approval.  And so you have states – we saw this past year in Texas, in Florida – they said, “Wait a minute.  Why should we have to continue to get approval to make any changes?”

So, is that the real case of what’s happening here?

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  Yeah.  These states have a history of discrimination, and so Congress reviewed their history, reviews their record and said, yes, any voting change has to go to federal review before it could be implemented.  And what we saw with Florida, with Texas, with North Carolina – they passed voter ID laws.  They passed restrictions on voter registration groups, and the court said, no, this has a discriminatory effect.

MR. MARTIN:  Right.

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  So, that’s how Section 5 works.

MR. MARTIN:  Paul, a lot of people assume that it’s only southern states affected; but, really, the Voting Rights Act breaks down which states and which counties are affected.  So, you have some that are in Ohio –

DR. PAUL BUTLER:  Oh, yeah.

MR. MARTIN:  — and some in California.  So, it’s not just southern states.

DR. BUTLER:  Yes, because the Voting Rights Act was designed to remedy discrimination, and it wasn’t just for African-Americans.  If we look at Alaska, natives there – Eskimos were being discriminated against, Latinos in California and Texas.  It’s the most successful, effective civil rights law of all time.

And that’s why, in part, now it’s a victim of its own success.  What some people are doing [is] saying, “African-Americans can vote.  We have an African-American president, more Latinos in Congress than ever before.  Why do we need the Voting Rights Act?”

MR. MARTIN:  But we saw with this past election, I believe, why you need it.  And one of the points that I kept making on this show is that Republicans were actually providing fodder, if you will, to their opponents because Republicans would say, “Hey, we don’t need this law in place.  That stuff was in the fifties and the sixties.  It doesn’t apply.”

Well, when you saw what took place last year, what they were basically saying is – they were basically providing evidence in 2012 that, frankly, to me, could potentially uphold the Voting Rights Act.

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  That’s a very important point, because what the case Shelby County, Alabama, is saying is that Congress didn’t have the authority to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.  There was no record of discrimination.  And as you just said, what this past year showed is that the record of discrimination continues, and it shows how Section 5 continues to work to prevent it.

MR. MARTIN:  Because … in Ohio, we saw where you had different early voting hours in Republican-leaning counties, as opposed to Democratic-leaning counties.  You saw in Florida how early voting was condensed to seven or eight days in that particular state.  And so you saw all of these interesting maneuvers taking place.

So, the real question is, looking at this Court, they looked at the Voting Rights Act just four years ago.

DR. BUTLER:  Yes.

MR. MARTIN:  So, what does it say that, four years later, they’re now looking at it again?

DR. BUTLER:  Well, what it says is that the Court intends to overthrow the Voting Rights Act.  They want to get rid of it.  Justice Roberts, the Chief, said a couple of years ago, “Congress, you really need to fix this law.  It was based on conditions in 1965.  It’s a new day now.”

Congress didn’t act, and now we have the Court accepting this case.

I’d like to be optimistic because, again, it’s responsible for the huge advance in African-American and Latino political participation; but, frankly, there’s no reason to be.

MR. MARTIN:  So, in this –

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  Can I just say –

MR. MARTIN:  — go ahead.  Go ahead.

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  — I’m not prepared to give up that easily – [chuckles] –

DR. BUTLER:  [Chuckles.]

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  — and the Court has precedent upholding the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act.  And that’s why I focused on what this case is about.  It’s whether Congress had the authority to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, whether there’s a record of discrimination.  And we see that that record of discrimination continues, so for the Court to overthrow the Voting Rights Act, they would have to go against precedent and have to go against the record.  It’s not going to be that easy for them to do.

MR. MARTIN:  And in this case here, the real guts of the Voting Rights is Section 5.

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  Yes.

MR. MARTIN:  I mean, look.  It covers a variety of things, but that really – that’s the guts.

DR. BUTLER:  Yeah, so Section 5 requires preclearance.  So, in the states and jurisdictions that have this history of things like poll taxes, literacy tests – stuff to keep us out of the voting booth – all it says is that, when they want to change the rules, they have to get clearance from the Justice Department.

MR. MARTIN:  And for any election, because … I recall a past case.  There was some water district, I think, in Texas –

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  Right.

MR. MARTIN:  — Austin, Texas –

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  Yes.

MR. MARTIN:  — that sued, and they said, “Wait a minute.  How in the world are we affected?”

So, it’s not just a congressional race, or a gubernatorial race.  It’s any election in that state.

DR. BUTLER:  Right, but most jurisdictions get their preclearance.  It’s really not that hard.  If they don’t like what the Justice Department does, they can go to court and get a better resolution there, if it’s deserved.

In this case – the case that’s before the Supreme Court – it wasn’t the Obama Justice Department; it was the Bush Justice Department that said, “Shelby County has gone way too far.  They’re discriminating.”  There was a black who was finally elected to the city council.  They changed the district, made it 71 percent black [sic]. Of course he didn’t get elected.

In Alabama, 15 percent of white voters voted for Obama.  They just aren’t going to vote.  Most of the whites there aren’t going to vote for an African-American candidate – unfortunately.

MR. MARTIN:  Actually. They changed the district [and] made it 71 percent white?

DR. BUTLER:  Yeah, 71 percent white –

MR. MARTIN:  Gotcha.

DR. BUTLER:  — and then the only guy – only African-American on the city council didn’t get elected.  Even the Bush Administration said, “You guys have gone too far.”

MR. MARTIN:  So, what can the average person do?  What role can they play to influence the Court?  Because oral arguments are going to be heard, I think, February 27th.

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  February 27th.  First, they should, if they’re here locally, go to the Court.  There’s going to be a rally on the court steps on February 27th.  They need to speak out and let folks know that this law is being challenged and to talk about the importance [that] this law has, because only with this public pressure and the public knowing that this very important law is being challenged – and we need to get the voices out there [for] the Court to hear – not just from the lawyers in the courtroom, but from the people – that this is important, and it matters.

DR. BUTLER:  And quickly, also to understand that all politics is local.  So, folks get excited, as we should be, about the presidential election, but you know who draws these voting districts?  State lawmakers –

MR. MARTIN:  That’s right.

DR. BUTLER:  — city council –

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  Right.

DR. BUTLER:  — people.  So, we need to be as on for those elections, as enthusiastic about those as we are to reelect President Obama.

MR. MARTIN:  Well, we’ll keep watching this and keep putting the pressure on ourselves.  Thanks a bunch.

MS. JOHNSON-BLANCO:  Well, thank you.

DR. BUTLER:  Great to be here.