By Charisma L. Miller, Esq.
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian caucus members, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are prepared to file an amicus brief in support of the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a significant piece of civil rights legislation that outlaws discriminatory voting practices.
The move to file the brief arose from a recent challenge to the Act in the Shelby v. Holder case to be argued in front of the United States Supreme Court in February 2013. Shelby County, Alabama has sued the United States Department of Justice, charging that portions of the law are unconstitutional.
At the forefront of the case is Section 5 of the Act. This section requires that jurisdictions that had, in the past, imposed literacy tests, and had less than 50 percent voter turnout in the 1964 or 1968 elections, be subject to special scrutiny by the Department of Justice or a panel of judges from US District Court for DC when changing their election and voting laws. The purpose is to ensure that the voting power of racial and ethnic minority groups is not diminished.
“This is potentially a pretty big deal,” commented William Araiza, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. While New York City is often viewed as a mecca of diversity, the Voting Rights Act and the Shelby case has specific significance to New York.
In 1921, New York state enacted an English-only literacy test that remained on the books through the 1960s. Since New York State law included a literacy test, three counties in New York City (Bronx, Kings, and New York counties) with low voter turnout in the 1968 elections were added to the list of jurisdictions covered by Section 5.
In the years since, New York City became a covered jurisdiction, and has pre-cleared over two thousand voting changes with the Justice Department.
“The argument being made by Shelby County,” noted Araiza, “is that these jurisdictions have changed, the Voting Rights Act has succeeded, minorities are full players and there is no more need for the statute.”
In other words, his argument goes, while racial discrimination contributed to low voter turnout in the 1960s, such rampant voter discrimination no longer exists and therefore voting rights need no longer be so stringently protected. This has not stopped the City Council from finding a need for the act.
“We are reminded that all too often, there are a handful of those who would rather ignore these rights by re-installing barriers, often on the basis of race, economics or political affiliation. We can’t allow the voting rights of our citizens to be eroded by such ignorance,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in a statement about the decision to file an amicus brief in this case.
“While New York has come a very long way since the 1960s and is now a leader in making it as easy as possible to register to vote, there remain other jurisdictions where there are efforts to impose unnecessary burdens on voters,” Bloomberg concurred. “Our administration believes that adoption of Section 5 was a constitutional and necessary act by Congress and should be upheld by the Supreme Court.”
As with any Supreme Court decision, it is not clear where the ruling will land. “The current Supreme Court is split between conservatives and liberals,” said Brooklyn attorney Sanford Rubenstein. “Whatever decision that the Supreme Court renders, it should be a decision to facilitate peoples rights to vote.”