Is Voting Rights Discrimination an Issue of the Past in Alabama?

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley says that voting rights discrimination in Alabama is an issue of the Past. He feels that Alabama is currently being unfairly punished for its actions during the Jim Crow period. Thus, he had state lawyers file a brief in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey, a U.S. Supreme Court case where Texas is challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Section 5 applies to all or part of 16 states and it applies to nine states in their entirety.

Alabama is one of the nine states that the Voting Rights Act requires to get federal approval before changing election rules or procedures, as a result of past laws and practices that discriminated against and disenfranchised racial minorities.

Attorneys for the governor argue in the brief that Alabama only received two rejections from 1996-2005, out of more than 3000 instances in which they sought clearance from the Justice Department.

This logic, however, does not mean that Alabama officials would not disenfranchise voters if they knew that there was no federal government oversight (although I'm not asserting that they necessarily would, either). However, the fact that Alabama only received two rejections while under federal oversight can actually be used to illustrate the effectiveness of the federal oversight.

According to the Birmingham News, Riley said in the brief that, "Congress wrongly equated Alabama's modern government, and its people, with their Jim Crow ancestors."

Riley also says in the brief that "while several states moved the dates of their 2008 presidential primaries without needing permission from the federal government, it took Alabama four months to do so because of the Voting Rights Act," according to the Birmingham News.

The length of time that the process took, however, does not mean that it was unnecessary. Alabama has a large African-American population that has historically been discriminated against. Without applying specific facts, it is feasible that Alabama could move the primary to a later date, for instance, to diminish the impact that African-Americans would have in the Democratic primary. While Alabama overwhelmingly went for McCain in the general election, then-Senator Obama beat then-Senator Clinton by a substantial margin (55 percent to 41 percent) in the Democratic primary and it is largely attributed to the high African-American voter turnout. It is not unrealistic to assume that with the basic structure of the primary system in which winning states early in the process can cause your opponent to drop out, that there are legitimate reasons for the government to oversee the changing of the primary date.

Oral arguments in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Mukasey will be heard on April 29.

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