- - Friday, April 19, 2013

The United States Supreme Court will soon begin conference deliberations on the Shelby County Voting Rights Act case, which could change the face of American politics.

The Alabama county is challenging the constitutionality of Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act, specifically the “triggering mechanism” for federal intervention, which is based on the population of eligible voters in the 1964, ‘68 and ‘72 general elections. When Congress reauthorized Section 5 in 2006, the triggering mechanism was not updated.

It is apparent from the U.S. Supreme Court justices’ questions during oral arguments that the Shelby County plaintiffs have a reasonable chance for victory in their efforts to end federal oversight. Devastating consequences, however, for minority officeholders and Republicans will result.

Section 5 requires jurisdictions covered by the Voting Rights Act to obtain Justice Department “pre-clearance” for all election code changes, but this does not invalidate any state laws. Instead, the affected laws become unenforceable. Section 5 essentially acts as a statutory injunction. If Shelby County succeeds, the injunction will be lifted and the laws previously stayed will become enforceable.

Let’s use the state of Florida’s congressional plan as an example of what could happen in Voting Rights Act jurisdictions over the next decade without Section 5.

Florida’s political maps are being litigated over a 2010 voter-passed redistricting initiative. Should the plaintiffs in the case win a strong likelihood if the Supreme Court sides with Shelby County all of the Sunshine State maps probably will be redrawn before the 2014 elections.

Included in the Florida ballot proposition is a provision that maintains whole counties unless the principle of one person, one vote or the Voting Rights Act requires otherwise. The state has seven big counties, such as Miami-Dade, that exceed the population requirement for a congressional district. If Shelby County wins, 10 seats would be fully contained within the counties. Today, only two complete districts reside within those particular confines. If the state criteria are enforced without the tempering effect of the Voting Rights Act, then two of Florida’s three protected black districts likely will disappear.

Rep. Corrine Brown, who is black, was first elected to the House in 1992. Under the current map, her 5th District encompasses parts of Jacksonville, Gainesville and Orlando. If the 2011 Florida Supreme Court’s ruling that allowed such a boundary is cast into doubt, her district no longer would be legally permissible because the seat breaks several county boundaries for reasons other than population count. Thus, the likely winner of the seat for a wholly contained Duval County that surrounds Jacksonville likely would be a white Democrat instead of a black.

Additionally, the other parts of her district would be apportioned to adjacent Republican seats. Enough political change would result to turn some of these districts from Republican to Democrat.

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings’ 20th District in South Florida is in a similar situation because his seat is not contained within a full county. The effect on the Florida Legislature would be even worse for Republicans. It would place the state’s reliably Republican-led Legislature in jeopardy and lead to an even more dramatic partisan congressional redrawing in 2022.

The Florida description is just an example of similar effects to come in states covered by the Voting Rights Act. The eventual result fewer black, Hispanic and Republican officeholders, Democratic legislative majorities returning throughout the South, and a Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives will be irreversible.

A Shelby County victory would ignite a major media firestorm about minority voting rights, and be assured that Democrats won’t, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once said, “let a serious crisis go to waste.” They will use the opportunity to rewrite Section 5, but the draft won’t help minorities and certainly not Republicans. Instead, the changes will usher in the return of white Democrats.

Jim Ellis is a professional election analyst who has worked in national campaign politics, grass-roots issue advocacy and redistricting since 1978.