Forty-eight years after the landmark Voting Rights Act of
1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices, one of its provisions was
challenged in the nation’s highest court.
On Feb. 27, the Supreme Court heard the case Shelby County v. Holder to decide if the
states and communities covered under Section 5 still need this kind of
supervision to prevent racial discrimination at the polls.
Kareem Crayton, associate professor of law, teamed with five
other nationally recognized scholars in political science and law on an amicus
(“friend of the court”) brief to educate the court with their collective
research on elections and voting rights.
“The question is: Does there continue to be a pattern of
racial discrimination in the political arena, and is this kind of remedial
legislation still needed?” Crayton said. “As scholars with a great deal of
expertise on the topic, we are offering a way to answer that question.”
Section 5 requires certain areas with histories of racial
discrimination and discriminatory voting practices to alert the federal
government when they alter voting laws. This includes the redrawing of voter
districts, requiring voter identification and discontinuing early voting
practices. The law requires that the government show that the changes do
not worsen political conditions for non-white voters.
In 2006, Congress secured Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act
through 2031, but Shelby County (Ala.), the plaintiff in the lawsuit, contends
that in the nearly five decades since President Lyndon Johnson signed the law,
the country has made enough racial progress to deem Section 5 unnecessary.
With an increasing number of non-white voters in 2008 and
again in 2012, and with an African-American president elected in both
elections, many wonder if these states and counties, mostly in the South, still
need this oversight. The research says yes, Crayton said.
“Nobody questions whether or not things have changed in
areas where Section 5 applies,” he said. “But has that change been significant
or deep enough?”
When Crayton decided to provide an amicus brief to the
court, he looked to organize fellow experts on race, politics and voting.
“We’re social scientists. We just want them to look at the data before they
decide,” he said.
Crayton’s brief is one of dozens submitted to the court for
this case, but he said it’s likely the only one done by a group of scholars
blending law and political science and advancing their argument through
“This is one of those questions where law assumes a lot of
theory, and political scientists are very good at that,” he said. “I wanted
people like me with training in both fields to use their work, and the work
they know about, to explain to the court how to understand these numbers in
broader terms of racial cooperation.”
Crayton said he expected both parties to engage the brief,
especially the opposing side.
“Shelby County made the argument against Section 5 that
there’s no fundamental difference between their state and other states,” he
said. “We highlight the ways in which the litigant, an entity in Alabama, is in
fact at the top of the list in terms of these differences.”
As an academic, Crayton said it’s important to think broadly
about the policy implications, not only to the individual county that brought
the case before the court, but also how a case might affect the entire country.
“Frankly, this is what the 15th amendment stands for, which
is to make sure the right to vote is preserved for everybody, regardless of
race or color,” he said.
This is an excerpt from an article published in the
February 27, 2013 issue of University Gazette.
To read the full story, visit gazette.unc.edu.
-March 7, 2013