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Voting Rights Act transformed state

     After nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was  stripped of much of its power Tuesday by a Supreme Court ruling in the case of Shelby County v. Holder.

     The Shelby County in question is Shelby County, Ala., where I lived for 11 years. Once dubbed one of the 10 fastest growing counties in America, this area south of Birmingham saw phenomenal growth in the past decades, fueled to no small degree by white flight from the neighboring big city.

      With a $34,226-per-capita income, Shelby County is relatively affluent, compared with much of the South. It also has an 85 percent white majority and is pretty solidly Republican.

     In comparison, Mississippi has a 60 percent white population and a per capita income of $20,521. Lincoln County’s demographics mirror the state’s fairly well – with a 68.1 percent white majority and a per capita income of $21,045.

     Whether you’re in Shelby County, Ala., or Brookhaven, Miss., though, there’s no arguing that the South hasn’t undergone massive changes since 1965, due in no small part to the Voting Rights Act’s enactment.

     Just a generation back, my parents once paid poll taxes. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, such discriminatory practices as poll taxes and voter tests were abolished.

     Under the requirements of the act, states with a history of discrimination against minorities were required to seek federal pre-approval for any changes to their election laws. Over the years, voting district maps were drawn that made it easier for minority candidates to be elected. Today, Mississippi and other southern states lead the nation in the number of black elected officials.

     It is the very success of the Voting Rights Act that led the Supreme Court justices to render their historic ruling, stating it is unconstitutional to require some areas of the country to seek Justice Department pre-approval for changes to their election process based on formulas determined nearly 50 years ago, formulas which no longer accurately apply in today’s demographics.

     In writing the court’s majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts summarized the act’s legacy: “… Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers.”

      The high court agreed with Shelby County’s arguments in its 2010 lawsuit against the U.S. attorney general that it “is no longer constitutionally justifiable for Congress to arbitrarily impose on Shelby County and other covered jurisdictions disfavored treatment by forcing them to justify all voting changes ….”

     As a result of Tuesday’s 5-4 high court opinion, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Alaska and Arizona – along with much of North Carolina and some areas of California, Florida, New York, South Dakota, New Hampshire and Michigan – no longer have to seek Justice Department prior approval under the Section 5 of the Voting Act for changes to such things as redistricting, location of polls, candidate qualifications, voter qualification procedures, etc.

     An immediate outcome of the ruling will likely be the prompt implementation of voter ID laws, like Mississippi’s, that have been delayed pending Justice Department approval.

     Critics of voter ID have argued that it will be used to keep minorities from voting – like the poll taxes and voter tests of old. Proponents, on the other hand, claim IDs will help eliminate voter fraud.

      Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said he will start immediately on implementing voter ID, and picture identification may be required at the polls in the state as early as mid-2014.

     While the Supreme Court effectively gutted the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, the justices did not argue that the requirement itself is unconstitutional, merely the means in which it was applied to only some parts of the country.

     “We issue no holding on Section 5 itself, only on the coverage formula,” Roberts stated. “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.”

     But the chances of Congress coming up with a new formula – or anything else for that matter – are highly unlikely, given the partisan gridlock in Washington.

     The enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 brought sweeping changes to Mississippi’s election process and to our state as a whole. Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling will also result in changes in the way Mississippi conducts its elections.

     Both Republican and Democratic leaders have been quick to comment pro and con on the Supreme Court’s pivotal decision, but what the future will actually hold remains to be seen.

     Rachel Eide is editor/general manager of The Daily Leader. Contact her at rachel.eide@dailyleader.com.