Shelby County v. Holder pits local election control against lingering racism

Tim Skillern

“Nobody likes to be stereotyped,” said Reggie Giles, a resident of Shelby County, Ala. Which is why stereotypical assumptions about Southerners, he noted—specifically, that they’re racists—is offensive.

“Racism is a stigma that the South can't seem to shake and that most of the rest of the country seems to want to perpetuate,” Giles, a software engineer, said.

Giles was one of several Shelby County residents who shared their thoughts with Yahoo News earlier this week as the Supreme Court prepares to hear Shelby County v. Holder on Wednesday. It’s a case that may determine the constitutionality of nearly five decades of voting rights legislation, specifically Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and a referendum of sorts on how far their county, and most of the South, has evolved on voting rights in the past 50 years.

Giles, who lives in Pelham, a Birmingham suburb, said protecting all voters’ rights is a “no-brainer.” But like many Shelby County residents, he finds some laws antiquated: Legislation conceived in 1965, he noted, doesn’t always apply in 2013.

At the heart of the debate reaching the court is local control of election laws against alleged racial discrimination in voting. Nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) are covered under Section 5 of the act, which mandates that changes to local election laws—no matter how trivial those alterations are perceived—must receive clearance from the Justice Department or through a lawsuit at the D.C. district court. Also subject to Section 5 are 57 counties and 12 townships outside those nine states. (See a full list.)

Congress has renewed the law several times, the last time in 2006 when it extended the Voting Rights Act until 2032.

The petitioner in this case is Shelby County, home to nearly 200,000 residents. The county didn’t seek to amend its voting laws, but it nevertheless sued the Justice Department to strike down Section 5 in its entirety.

(SCOTUS Blog has more in-depth analysis and information for those interested in exploring the legislation’s more esoteric nooks and crannies, including the formula in Section 4 that determines which areas Section 5 covers.)

Legislative diversity helps battle racism in government

The racism label is hardly limited to the South. Former South Dakota state Sen. Thomas Shortbull, who also shared his thoughts with Yahoo News, says government oversight is needed in his state.

Two of the state’s counties—Shannon and Todd—already comply with the federal government. And for years, state politicians fought over the counties that hold part of the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations along the southern border with Nebraska.

In 1975, Shortbull recommended that Shannon and Todd counties sit in the same legislative district where 90 percent of the voters would be American Indian. Shortbull argued that the only way the group could gain a legislative voice was to merge the reservations into one district. Five years later, the state—reluctantly, Shortbull said—created one district that covered most of the reservations.

“[Section 5] is the only vehicle in some states to fight institutional racism in local and state governments,” Shortbull wrote in his first-person account. “In the state of South Dakota, racism towards minorities is prevalent, and the only means of diminishing the racism is to elect more minorities to state and local governments.”

Local victories tough to win—and maintain

In Houston, Rogene Calvert has advocated for the city’s Asian-American communities for years. While there are 280,000 Asian-Americans in Houston, Calvert says, they rarely can elect a representative candidate because the state has dispersed those voters into separate districts.

They did score a victory in 2004, however, when Rep. Hubert Vo bounced a 22-year incumbent from House District 149 in southwestern Houston and became Texas’ first Vietnamese-American representative.

Vo, who won that race by 16 votes after three recounts, has been re-elected four times. But, Calvert said, in 2011, the state eyed redistricting to eliminate Vo’s seat and break it up into three districts.

“We objected to this at every stage of the process,” she said, noting that she testified before the state’s House Redistricting Committee, urging it to reconsider its plan to split up Asian-American voters in southwest Harris County.

“The state legislature ignored us,” she added.

Under Section 5, however, the Justice Department refused to approve redistricting.

“Because of that, we still have a vibrant coalition in HD 149 and we still can elect the candidates of our choice,” Calvert said. “Without the protection of the VRA, the influence of the Asian-American community would have been drastically reduced.”

‘Punished for the sins of our fathers’

In Shelby County, things are less pragmatic and more philosophical. Residents who shared their thoughts about the Voting Rights Act focused less on political gerrymandering and more on how they believed it impugns local control and the spirit of sovereignty.

Jonathan Williams, a 32-year-old Montevallo resident, often gathers at the local coffee shop to listen to wisdom from men he calls the town’s elders.

“Occasionally, they let me sit in their august presence—one of my favorite ways to spend a Friday afternoon,” Williams wrote in his account. “Between the eight of them, they have seen and done almost everything—fought for their country, traveled the world, raised families, lost and won fortunes. Black, white, blue-collar and white-collar, they all gather around a table each afternoon to solve the world's problems while shamelessly flirting with the servers.”

When Williams raised Shelby County v. Holder, the elders weren’t shy about sharing their opinions, he said.

One elder offered: "Are we second-class citizens in our own country?"

Another said: "I don't care if a man is black, white, Mexican or Chinese.”

The more important questions, to him: “Is he Republican or Democrat? Where does he go to church?"

Williams said he’s seen too much progress to believe Section 5 should survive a court challenge. “How long must we be punished for the sins of our fathers before the rest of the nation realizes things have changed? I'm sick of it," he said.

Elections are the only true shared experience

Unlike Williams, Tommy Daspit hasn’t lived in Shelby County his whole life. He’s called it home for three years after living in diverse locales such as Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Washington state and Indiana.

He noted the subtle differences in dialect, food, music and ideologies. But elections, he said, are the same.

“The experience of voting in Shelby County, Ala., was the same as it was in Tippecanoe, Ind., Kittitas County, Wash., or Dallas County, Texas,” Daspit, a photographer, said. “Sure, there are some differences in the way the ballots look from one place to the next, but the experience of voting is the same.”

Daspit said Section 5 is dispensable and excessive: “It has aided in transforming the South into a place where my children can grow up friends with children of all colors. However, it is no more relevant to Shelby County today than it would be in the North or the West.”

Bigots are not the prevailing entities

Daspit’s wife, Kelly, said she sees postracial evolution in Shelby County’s youngest residents. She writes:

Last week, my 8-year-old son was making Valentines for his 21 classmates at the elementary school he attends in Shelby County. He spent extra time decorating five of them, writing on those, in his approximated spelling, the word "FRANDS."

Two of those "FRANDS" are African-American boys. They play together and sometimes argue together, but they are friends. When my son celebrates his birthday, those two boys will be among the others invited to his party. There wouldn't be a question in the children's or in their parents' minds that it should be otherwise.

Born in 1975, Kelly Daspit said she understands life wasn’t always that way. Even after legal integration, unofficial social segregation—black and white students sitting at separate tables in school cafeterias—continued in her youth. But through the years, she said, it’s improved:

I have taught in five schools, and little by little, year by year, I have watched the change. No longer is it taboo for black and white children to have relationships. There are no longer "white" and "black" tables, and today's children could hardly imagine otherwise. Why? Because their parents did not teach them otherwise. Because, as we grew up in integrated schools, working in integrated workplaces, we learned each other. We learned there was nothing to fear from another's skin or another's culture. We learned that we really do all have the same worth. And racism, little by little, year by year, has perished. Yes, there are still some bigots; there always will be. You can find those in any town, in any state. But they are not the majority. They are not the prevailing entity.

How can I be sure? Because a public school is a reflection of its society. And if you wish to know about the prevailing society in Shelby County, Ala., just consider my 8-year-old son and consider who his "FRANDS" are.

Giles, the Pelham resident, offered his own evidence of progress: “For the record, my votes were split in the past two presidential elections. In 2008, I voted for one of the two major party's candidate, and in 2012 I voted for the other.”

Nobody likes to be stereotyped.