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Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Tim Durham

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act

Requires states, counties and local governments with a history of discrimination get permission from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to voting procedures.

Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act

Determines which jurisdictions are subject to Section 5.
Jurisdictions are subject to Section 5 if they ever used a test or device — such as a literacy test or a requirement to prove good moral character — that restricted ability to register and vote. Jurisdictions also are subject to Section 5 if less than 50 percent of their voting-age citizens were registered to vote or voted in the 1972 presidential election.

Which states are covered?

• Nine states are covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
• Seven states are partially covered by Section 5. They are: California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire (New Hampshire has a request for exemption pending).

Source: Justice Department

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WASHINGTON - The 1965 Voting Rights Act transformed American politics, especially in the South, by making sure minorities had a path to the ballot box and an equal shot at public service.

Forty-eight years later, after re-election of a black president, the heart of that law is on trial.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments Feb. 27 in a case that is sure to ignite debate over how far the country has progressed on racial issues and whether minority voters still need extra protection.

Shelby County, Ala., opposed by the Justice Department and civil rights groups, wants two key sections of the Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional.

Section 5 bars election officials in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination from changing their voting procedures unless they first prove the changes won’t hurt minorities. Section 4b uses a formula to determine which states, counties and municipalities are subject to Section 5.

Though they are not challenging the law, five Florida counties — Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe — are regulated by the Voting Rights Act.

Parts of Florida and other states were included in 1975 under a provision requiring communities to provide bilingual voting materials, including ballots where members of a single language minority made up more than 5 percent of the citizens of voting age. In 2010, about 22 percent of Collier’s voting-age population was Hispanic.

Tim Durham, chief deputy of elections for Collier, said the provision under which the county was brought under the act has been relaxed over time so newly identified localities in similar situations only have to meet the language requirements.

But any voting changes proposed by Collier, such as drawing new county commission districts, must be approved by the Justice Department even though the agency has never issued an objection to the county’s plans, Durham said.

So why hasn’t the county sought to get out from under a law that can be cumbersome to comply with?

“There’s always a danger,” he said. “When a local government wants to, for no bad reason, get out from something like this, there can be the perception that ‘Oh, you’re not sensitive to minority populations.’”

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Shelby County says the provisions are outmoded and unfair to parts of the country that have transcended their discriminatory pasts.

Defending the law

Civil rights advocates, including Florida A&M University Associate Law Professor Patricia Broussard, counter the provisions are the best defense against a return to the days when racism permeated election procedures .

“If Shelby County’s challenge is successful, the discouragement and suppression of the individual political liberty that is embodied in the right to vote will be proliferated and unabated by those who forcibly and discriminatorily place their own political and personal gains above others, specifically minorities,” wrote Broussard in a court filing supporting the Justice Department.

The filing was submitted on behalf of more than 40 students at the law school.

Civil rights groups accused Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-controlled Legislature of trying to suppress the minority vote during the 2012 election with a law that made it more difficult to register new voters and by slashing the number of early voting days.

Scott also ended automatic restoration of ex-felons’ voting rights and wanted local election officials to purge rolls of voters whose citizenship could not be verified.

Scott said he took the steps to prevent voter fraud.

Previous attempts to gut the Voting Rights Act have failed, and in 2006, Congress extended the law 25 years.

But in 2009, the Supreme Court questioned whether the law’s “current burdens” were justified by “current needs,” essentially inviting another attempt to overturn it.

“Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp,” said Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which is financing Shelby’s challenge .

Reporter Deborah Barfield Berry of the Gannett Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

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