The US Supreme Court has announced it will hear arguments on February 27 in the case from Calera (Shelby County), Alabama, that challenges the pre-clearance provision (Section 5) of the federal Voting Rights Act. That’s the provision that allows the US Justice Department to step in and block changes in election procedures that will have a discriminatory impact in various jurisdictions across the nation, including 40 counties in North Carolina. The Nation has a substantive article reviewing the Supreme Court case and Voting Rights Act, which includes this telling overview of the situation leading to the challenge:
It’s not surprising that the most recent challenge originates in Alabama, which, more than any other state, is responsible for the passage of the Voting Rights Act. [President Lyndon Johnson] announced the legislation eight days after police brutally beat civil rights activists during the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” protests in Selma. . . .
Calera, a once-sleepy town from which the lawsuit stems, is fifty-five miles north of Selma. Best known for its Heart of Dixie Railroad Museum, Calera became the fastest-growing city in the state over the past decade, adding new businesses like Walmart and Cracker Barrel off the busy I-65 highway running from Birmingham to Montgomery. Before local elections in 2008, Calera redrew its city boundaries. The black voting-age population had grown from 13 percent in 2004 to 16 percent in 2008, but the new maps eliminated the City Council’s lone majority-black district, represented by Ernest Montgomery since 2004. The city decreased the black voting-age population in Montgomery’s district from 71 to 30 percent by adding three overwhelmingly white subdivisions while failing to include a large surrounding black neighborhood. A day before the election, the Justice Department objected to the change. Calera could have preserved the majority-black district, the city’s demographer told Washington, but the City Council chose not to. Calera held the election in defiance of Justice Department orders, and Montgomery lost by two votes.
A soft-spoken and civic-minded precision machinist, Montgomery grew up going to segregated schools until junior high, but he didn’t think race was as big an issue in Calera as it was in other parts of the state. That changed in 2008, when he knocked on doors in the lily-white subdivisions of his new district—which he knew well from his time on the city planning commission—and was told by residents that they were supporting his opponent, who’d lived in the town for only three years. When asked why, they couldn’t give him a good reason. Montgomery could come to only one conclusion: “they voted against me because of the color of my skin.”
The Justice Department negated the election results and, after a year of negotiations, Calera moved from single-member districts to an at-large election system for the City Council. Montgomery was easily elected under the new system, winning the largest number of votes of any candidate, while his opponent from 2008 received the second-fewest. After the two elections, “I realized how important Section 5 is,” Montgomery said.