First Person: Section 5 of Voting Rights Act Preserves Communities' Choice of Candidate

Yahoo Contributor Network
Editor's note: On Feb. 27, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a case that may determine the constitutionality of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. At issue is local control of voting laws and racial discrimination in elections. In short, many locations (and some entire states) must seek approval from the Justice Department before implementing election-related changes. Shelby County, Ala., which sits just southeast of Birmingham, is one, and it has sued to strike down Section 5. To familiarize yourself with the case, read this SCOTUS blog primer.

Yahoo News asked Americans across the country who are deeply impacted by this case to offer local color and weigh in with their perspectives. Here's one.

FIRST PERSON | My name is Rogene Calvert from Houston, and I would like to tell you about how Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was responsible for keeping a district where Asian-American, Latino, and African-American voters could elect their candidate of choice.

I’ve been an advocate for Houston’s Asian-American communities for years. There are more than 280,000 of us in the metropolitan area, yet we have rarely been able to elect a candidate of our choice to the state legislature because we are not concentrated enough.

But that’s not the case in House District 149. It is the most diverse district in Texas and a center of the Asian-American community. In 2004, working in coalition with African-American and Latino communities, we were able to elect Hubert Vo, the first Vietnamese-American representative to the state legislature. It was not an easy task since Rep. Vo was trying to unseat a 22-year incumbent. This individual had been so busy in Austin that he hadn’t kept in touch with his district, which had become one of the most diverse districts in the state. Due to large numbers of Asians, African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants from many different countries, the population of District 149 had become very different from the largely white, older and more conservative population he was used to representing. After three recounts and winning by 16 votes, Hubert Vo assumed the position of state legislator for District 149 in southwest Houston.

Rep. Vo has won re-election four times since then. So, this coalition of voters has been able to continue electing the candidate of its choice. But in the recent redistricting process in 2011, the state legislature wanted to redistrict, eliminate our seat entirely and break it up in to three different districts.

We objected to this at every stage of the process. I sent several letters opposing the plan and worked with the other communities to say that we didn't want to see our minority coalitions split. I testified at two of the House Redistricting Committee’s public hearings regarding the House redistricting plan. I stressed to the committee that Asian-Americans in southwest Harris County were a community of interest and urged that the final House redistricting plan preserve the areas with high concentration of Asian Americans and not split them up.

The state legislature ignored us. But the Department of Justice stepped in and refused to preclear the redistricting under Section 5. Because of that, we still have a vibrant coalition in HD 149 and we still can elect the candidates of our choice.

Without the protection of the VRA, the influence of the Asian-American community would have been drastically reduced. And it would have been harder for us to build the coalitions that resulted in the election of the only Vietnamese-American in the Texas legislature. It took us a while to form these coalitions and to get the political strength to elect candidates that we all could support. And thanks to Section 5, this plan was invalidated and the multiracial coalitions that we spent years building were preserved.

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