Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead praised the ruling as “a testament to how far we have come as a state and as a nation in the area of fair and free elections.”
He said Attorney General Eric Holder should not have the power to “play political games” with the voting laws in Alabama, and says that thanks to Shelby County, he no longer has that power.
The only black elected to countywide office in Shelby County, Republican Aubrey Miller, called the ruling a “premature burial” of the act, and said the decision effectively kills the law. He fears his county and the rest of the South will slide backward toward discrimination now that the Justice Department no longer will be approving or disapproving changes in state and local election procedures. Congress could act to redefine places where preapproval of changes would be required, but no one thinks that will happen. The previous definition used 40-year-old data, which was part of the argument in the lawsuit.
Preapproval wasn’t required everywhere across the nation. The law applied fully to nine states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia — and in parts of seven other states — California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire. Those areas were given extra scrutiny because of past practices that infringed on the right to vote of several minority groups.
Any change in electoral procedures in those areas had to have prior approval by the Justice Department, such as changes in districts or voting places, or a change to or from at-large voting instead of district voting.
Have attitudes changed in the past half-century?
The case, Shelby County vs. Holder, resulted from a situation in Calera where districts were re-drawn without Justice Department preapproval. Ernest Montgomery became the only black on Calera’s city council in 2004, winning election in a majority black district. The city redrew the lines after new development in that part of town, which made it a white majority district, and Montgomery lost the 2008 election. The Justice Department demanded changes and a new election. Calera switched to an at-large election, and Montgomery won one of the six seats on the new council, with the third largest vote total in a nine-candidate field.
One could argue that things have changed.
Statewide redistricting, which will be used in next year’s election, raised questions about where today’s politicians were attempting to dilute black voting strength. The work on realignment was carefully done to protect districts where black candidates are currently holding office. In some cases, those districts even emerged with higher percentages of black voters. But in districts where white Democrats have traditionally been elected, the intention was to make it tougher for a Democrat to win. And most of the time, most black voters prefer Democrats over Republicans. The strategy is to have a smaller percentage of traditionally Democratic voters in those districts, and in some cases that meant a lower percentage of black voters.
One could argue old attitudes remain the same.
But that plan met with Justice Department approval.
As the law stands now, complaints about discriminatory election practices can only be filed after they occur, if they occur.
Certainly great strides have been made in opening up the nation to more equal access and opportunities. The institutions and policies of the Jim Crow era are relics of the past.
It will be up to Alabama, and the other affected areas, to prove things are different now. Shame on us if we don’t.