Voting Rights Act to go before Supreme Court - ABC 33/40 - Birmingham News, Weather, Sports

Voting Rights Act to go before Supreme Court

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SHELBY COUNTY - AL -

Shelby County's challenge to section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 goes before the highest court in the land this week.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday morning as to whether that section of the law has outlived a need.

Under the act, certain states with a history of discrimination must have federal approval in order to make any changes to their voting laws.

This case began back in 2010. Four years before that, congress extended section five for another 25 years.

Getting federal approval for something as simple as moving a voting precinct from one side of the street to the other can get expensive and time consuming.

"Things have certainly changed in the south, they've changed in Alabama," says Shelby County attorney Butch Ellis. "The south is not the same as it was in 1964."
 
Ellis recalls when the Voting Rights Act became law in 1965. Ellis says he supports the act, but believes section 5 and its reauthorization by Congress is unconstitutional.

"(Congress) did not have a specific record to show there was intentional discrimination in these covered districts and if so, it differed from the non-covered jurisdictions," Ellis explains.

Cities and counties under the jurisdiction must get approval from the Department of Justice for any changes to elections.

"Everything you do, pertaining in anyway to an election process has to be approved," says Ellis. "If you want to form an emergency fire district or an emergency medical district, you have to get it pre-cleared and you have to go to Washington D.C. to get it done. If you disagree with the justice department, you've got to go to federal court. Not here, but in Washington. It's a very expensive process to do."

As an example, Ellis points to the 2012 primary election.

A polling place located at Riverchase United Methodist Church had to move a mile up the road, to Riverchase Baptist Church.

"We asked for expedited treatment and got it done, but the fact is, that we had to pre-clear that," Ellis recalls. "It just happens when you take this 48-year-old formula that is used. Alabama is a covered jurisdiction. So therefore everything they do, including changing a polling place from one side of the street to the other has to be pre-cleared."

Not everyone is ready to see section 5 of the Voting Rights Act removed.

Just last week, President Obama said he fully supports congress upholding this part of the law.

He said if the law were stripped of its advance approval provision, "It would be hard for us to catch those things up front to make sure that elections are done in an equitable way."

Now, the decision rests with the U.S. Supreme Court. Its decision will be felt outside Shelby County.

There are 12,000 cities and counties, and 16 states that are affected by the act.

It has been estimated that those cities and counties spend over a billion dollars, every ten years.

Virginia based Project on Fair Representation is paying all legal expenses for Shelby County. The group saw Shelby County's predicament as a perfect case.

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