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McClendon and Smitherman Divided Over Preclearance Section of the 1965 Voting Right Act

By Susan Britt and Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires that any changes to voting districts in Alabama and 15 other states must be approved by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ). The City of Calera and Shelby County have challenged that 47 year old law, which was supposed to expire but which has been renewed by the United States Congress twice…..most recently in 2006 during the George W. Bush Administration.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed by the United States Congress because Alabama and 15 other states had a history of discrimination against minorities and that based on their histories Section 5 required that they must receive preclearance from DOJ before any reapportionment plan can be implemented. Shelby County and the City of Calera argue that times have changed and that modern Alabamians have grown past the often violent racial disharmony of the increasingly distant past.

Alabama State Representative Jim McClendon (R) from Springville agrees with Shelby County. The Republican Chairman of the Joint Committee on Reapportionment told ‘The Alabama Political Reporter’ that the law is almost 50 years old and that preclearance requirement should end.

Alabama State Senator Rodger Smitherman disagrees. He told the ‘Alabama Political Reporter,’ “I promise you nothing has changed but time.” Sen. Smitherman said that the only reason that change occurred has been because federal authorities: “Came in and stopped Alabama from doing what they were doing. The reason that we don’t have some of the older problems is because of other federal laws. If they were removed we would go backwards in time in this state. The effort is being made now to take us back. Without a fight many African-American voters will continue to be disenfranchised. The people who want to disenfranchise the African-American voters will accelerate. We still have the same problems.”

Rep. McClendon said that ending preclearance would not lead to discrimination, because any group who felt that they were being treated unfairly would still have the right to sue. Ending the preclearance requirement on the other hand would save the state of Alabama and its cities and counties a considerable amount of money.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holders defends the preclearance requirement. At a gathering of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches, AG Holder called the preclearance requirement “a cornerstone of civil rights law.” Holder said that Section 5 has been “a powerful tool to battle discrimination for years.” AG Holder said that “Section 5 has increasingly come under attack by those who claim it is no longer needed.”

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The City of Calera is over 20% Black and it had a majority minority district represented by a Black city councilman. During the housing boom, Calera grew rapidly. Hundreds of new homes were built and the Shelby County City made several annexations. In 2006, the City had to reapportion itself. The problem for the city was that while Black families had bought homes all over the fast growing city and did not relegate themselves to the classic “colored sections” so common in the old segregated South. The City claimed that it was impossible for them to create a majority minority district in the city, even though the city is still over 20% Black. They held a city election and the lone Black City Councilman, Ernest Montgomery, lost. DOJ then intervened and forced a new at-large election. Councilman Montgomery was then reelected.

Calera has sued AG Eric Holder and the Department of Justice arguing that Section 5 is unconstitutional. Shelby County has since joined the lawsuit on behalf of Calera and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has joined the case on the side of DOJ. To this point DOJ has won the battles in the federal court system. Reuters is reporting that the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to hear this case.

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