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Harry Reid weighs in on Alabama voting rights case

Harry Reid

Harry Reid

WASHINGTON — Sen. Harry Reid weighed in Friday on an upcoming Supreme Court case that could prove pivotal in determining whether campaigns for voter ID laws proliferate.

Reid filed a friend of the court brief in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, a case that challenges a section of the Voting Rights Act giving the federal government the power to block changes to voting laws in 16 states with a history of racial discrimination. Alabama is among them.

Reid called that section — Section 5 — “a critical tool in upholding the promise of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.”

The 14th Amendment, among other things, establishes territorial birthright citizenship and guarantees that “no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States.”

The 15th Amendment gives Congress the right to pass legislation to ensure that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

“The recent election demonstrates that Section 5 remains necessary to ensure that every eligible voter has the right to cast a ballot,” Reid said in a statement Friday. “If the Supreme Court dismantles this historic civil rights will be a tremendous step backwards for freedom and equality in this country.”

No state has actually proposed a law to limit voting rights of individuals of a particular race.

But opponents of voter ID laws have argued that the requirement to present an ID to vote unfairly suppresses votes of minorities and the poor.

On that reasoning, President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, led by Eric Holder, has made an effort to stop certain voter ID laws. But because Section 5 only applies to a handful of states, the federal government’s push against voter ID laws has been somewhat haphazard.

The Department of Justice successfully blocked Texas from passing a voter ID law under its Section 5 powers last year. But when Pennsylvania, Kansas, Tennessee and Wisconsin adopted voter ID laws, the Justice Department had no power to intervene.

Shelby County, which is largely made up of the south suburban areas of Birmingham, is in Alabama, a state subject to Section 5 review. The county is awaiting an answer from the federal government as to whether the voter ID law it passed in 2011 can take effect in 2014.

Shelby County argues that the formula that the Voting Rights Act uses — a formula based on registration rates from the late 1960s and early 1970s — is out of date because the racial barriers to the ballot box that existed then no longer exist.

Opponents say the discrimination has simply become more subtle.

The case, however, will not be determined on the merits of Alabama’s voter ID law application.

In filing its case against Holder, Shelby County is directly challenging the constitutionality of Congress’s 2006 vote to reauthorize Section 5, along with the whole Voting Rights Act, for another 25 years.

The House of Representative voted for the reauthorization with a vote of 390-33; the Senate voted to reauthorize the Act 98 to 0.

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