The stakes in the U.S. Supreme Court's upcoming decision on the Voting Rights Act are momentous, determining the fate of a long-standing civil rights law and potentially opening the way for new state voter ID laws and other measures likely to reduce the voter rolls.
The ruling, which could come Monday, is likely to impact elections around the nation for decades to come.
For Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas, the case has a more personal meaning.
In 1993, Salinas was the first Latino supervisor elected in a century in a county where Latinos then made up one-third of the population, and now comprise 55 percent. Four years earlier, he had become the first Latino elected to the Salinas City Council.
Both elections were made possible when the U.S. Justice Department rejected district boundaries drawn by incumbents, finding that they would weaken minority voting. The department was able to intervene because Monterey County is covered by the Voting Rights Act's Section 5, which the Supreme Court may well strike down this week.
Assuring a Voice
The law is "an assurance to minority communities that they have a voice," said Salinas, now one of two Latinos among the county's five supervisors. In March, the board unanimously passed a resolution urging the court to uphold Section 5 as a safeguard for equality in voting.
To its detractors, however, Section 5 is an anachronism and an insult to state and local governments forced to seek federal approval for any change in election procedures because Congress classified them as discriminatory in the 1960s. Most of the areas covered by the law are in the South, although it also applies to Arizona, Alaska and scattered counties elsewhere, including three in California.
"The South has changed" and should not be singled out for punishment, Bert Rein, lawyer for Shelby County, Ala., told the justices at a hearing in February.
The court's conservatives appeared to agree. Justice Anthony Kennedy questioned why states were treated unequally. Chief Justice John Roberts said Mississippi, which is covered by Section 5, now has a higher rate of minority voter turnout than Massachusetts, which is not covered. Justice Antonin Scalia referred dismissively to Section 5 as a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited racial discrimination in voting, with a two-track enforcement system. In most of the nation, new election rules -- redistricting, annexations, or changes in voting hours, polling places or voter qualifications -- can be blocked only if the Justice Department or private litigants prove they are likely to suppress minority voting.
But the rules are different for nine states and more than 50 counties nationwide covered by Section 5. They must submit every election-related change to the Justice Department, or a federal appeals court, for clearance before putting them into effect, and have the burden of proving they are not discriminatory.
That's apparently not difficult to prove in most cases -- the department currently rejects fewer than 1 percent of the proposals it reviews. But Section 5 also deters those state and local governments from enacting more far-reaching changes, said Pamela Karlan, a Stanford law professor.
A local government will often decide that "if we change this polling place in a
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