Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Voting Rights Act

This month, the Supreme Court will consider whether or not Congress' 2006 extension of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. This story presents a great opportunity to engage your students in current events and voting rights history.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act states that federal authorities need to approve any changes to the voting laws of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota. This provision was included to further combat Jim Crow laws in the places that needed it the most, and was only to last five years. Congress has chosen to extend this provision numerous times, most recently voting in 2006 to extend it for 25 years. In the case before the Court, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, the city of Austin argues that it is no longer appropriate to assume that these areas discriminate.

So why challenge this section of the law after 40 years? Many point to the election of Barack Obama as proof that this type of racism no longer exists. Others, such as Justice Kennedy say, "racial discrimination and racially polarized voting are not ancient history" and that a minority president does not mean we should relax our laws.

What do your students think? Does the "Age of Obama" mean that our nation has moved beyond racial discrimination? Or did Congress act appropriately when they extended Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act?

You can use the online game, Seize the Vote! or the Center's Constitutional Timeline and Interactive Constitution to have your students learn more about voting rights history to better inform their discussion.

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