Sikhs Affected by Supreme Court Strike Down of Voter Rights Act
By Anju Kaur, SikhNN staff writer, Washington Bureau
Posted: Tuesday, July 02, 2013 | 02:13 pm
Last week’s ruling was not the first time the Supreme Court decided in opposition of civil rights and minority views. Perhaps the first battle for the right to vote for South Asians began with a court case in which a Sikh soldier fought for US citizenship. In 1923, the Supreme Court ruled that Bhagat Singh Thind, the first Sikh to fight in the US Army, was not white enough to become a citizen.
Photo Source: bhagatsinghthind.com
Sikhs should join in support of all minorities in asking Congress to rewrite the parts of the Voter Rights Act that were struck down by the US Supreme Court last week to again protect their voting rights at the polls, a Sikh advocacy group said.
The landmark federal civil rights law was enacted in 1965 to prevent certain jurisdictions, with a history of racial discrimination in voting, from passing their own voting laws that would hinder the ability of minorities to vote.
“The nature of the act was to protect minority voters and their right to vote,” said Amrita Singh, legal and legislative affairs associate with the Washington-based Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
According to the Department of Justice, the act established a coverage formula to identify those areas of the country with discriminatory practices, and to provide more stringent remedies.
In 1965, discriminatory practices included "a test or device," such as being able to pass a literacy test, establish good moral character, or have another registered voter vouch for his or her qualifications.
The act suspended these practices and required those jurisdictions to receive approval by the US District Court in Washington or by the attorney general for any changes to their voting laws. It also provided for the attorney general to appoint federal examiners to prepare and forward voter lists, and to send federal observers for elections.
The formula initially covered Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, and parts of Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Carolina.
In 1970, when Congress reauthorized the act for another five years, it modified the formula, which resulted in encompassing parts of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Wyoming and California, including Yuba County, which has a large Sikh population.
Sikhs and other Asians benefited greatly in the next revision of the act, which ensured language access to people with limited English-language skills.
In 1975, the act was broadened to address voting discrimination against members of "language minority groups." These included American Indians, Asian Americans, Alaskan Natives and people of Spanish heritage. As a result, all of Alaska, Arizona, and Texas became covered jurisdictions, and also parts of Florida, Michigan and South Dakota.
In 1982, Congress extended the act 25 years, but with no changes to the formula. It approved another 25-year extension in 2006. While some jurisdictions have successfully bailed out of the coverage list by showing good behavior for 10 years, many have remained for decades.
Shelby County, Alabama filed a lawsuit in December 2011 against the federal government to invalidate the parts of the act that requires federal approval of changes in its voting laws. When the case went to the Supreme Court in February, 28 Asian American groups, including SALDEF, wrote to the Supreme Court to uphold the Voting Rights Act, particularly to ensure fully-translated ballots and language assistance at polling places in growing Asian American neighborhoods.
They also noted that the act had “enabled Asian Americans and other minorities to object to discriminatory redistricting plans as recently as 2012, when the Texas state legislature's redistricting plan was denied preclearance for diminishing the opportunity of people of color to elect candidates of their choice,” the Jan. 31 letter says.
But the Supreme Court, on June 25, decided that the act violates the sovereignty of the covered states because they are treated differently from other states, and declared the coverage formula unconstitutional because it is based on old voting data and has not been updated since 1975.
"Our country has changed," said Chief Justice John Roberts, in the majority opinion. "And while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."
Voicing the minority opinion from the bench, Justice Ruth Ginsburg noted that, in 2006, Congress held 21 hearings in 20 months and reviewed 15,000 pages of documentation before it nearly unanimously reauthorized the act and its coverage formula.
"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice, if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task to completion," Ginsburg said, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. That commitment has been "disserved by the majority's decision," she said.
The summary dismissal of these key provisions of the Voter Rights Acts brought swift consternation from civil rights groups.
“The act was meant to be a way that helps with voter issues beforehand,” Amrita Singh said. Protections were in place so voters did not encounter issues at the polls. States can now enact laws, such as voter identification cards, that affect these voters. And if they encounter a problem during elections, “they will have to deal with it after the fact,” with a lawsuit.
“This ruling is a grave setback for voting rights and equality in the country that ignores both the historical and contemporary evidence of discrimination that minority voters face,” said the Maryland-based South Asian American Leading Tomorrow, in a June 27 statement.
“South Asians will not be immune from (the) disappointing ruling, particularly given our community’s overall size and growth in jurisdictions previously covered under the… formula, including Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia.”