Court must uphold voting safeguards
By Terry M. Ao
Published: Sunday, May 3, 2009
Discrimination persists at the polls, so the Supreme Court should not retreat on this issue. We still need special protections for minority voters.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder. At issue is Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires certain states with egregious histories of racial discrimination to obtain Justice Department approval before changing their election practices.
Section 5 strives to ensure that these states don't redraw district lines or relocate polling places in ways that make it more difficult for racial and ethnic minorities to exercise their right to vote.
In the states fully covered by Section 5 -- Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia -- Asian-American voters continue to experience discrimination.
During the 2008 elections, Asian-Americans had to overcome many barriers at the polls to exercise their right to vote. These obstacles included inadequate language assistance, improper identification checks, poll site confusion, racially biased and poorly trained poll workers, incomplete voter lists and denials of provisional ballots.
And the legacy of discrimination in these states casts a shadow.
Take a look at Texas. The state maintained whites-only primaries until the Supreme Court found them to be unconstitutional in 1944. But voter discrimination did not end there.
After a black candidate almost won a council seat in Austin, the city adopted at-large elections in the 1950s to make sure black voters would be outnumbered by whites.
And, at a recent election committee hearing, Texas state Rep. Betty Brown suggested voters of Asian descent should adopt names that are "easier for Americans to deal with."
For years now, Asian-Americans have been moving in significant numbers beyond their traditional states of California, New York and Hawaii. In two big cities covered by Section 5 -- Atlanta and Houston -- the Asian-American community is burgeoning.
Often they are perceived as "outsiders" and face increased levels of racial tension and discrimination.
Section 5 remains relevant and is needed to help protect the Asian-American voters.
Civil-rights groups like the Asian American Justice Center, the Asian Law Caucus, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the Asian American Institute and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association have filed an amicus brief in support of Section 5.
It provides an important tool in combating voting discrimination against minority populations and is essential to ensuring access to the polls by all Americans. Without Section 5, discrimination against racial minorities at the polls can be expected to increase.
Terry M. Ao is the director of census and voting programs for the Asian American Justice Center.
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