02/28/2013 12:15 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

No Time to Diminish Voting Rights

The Supreme Court is at it again. Just years after it dodged the question of whether to outlaw the will of Congress by declaring the most critical section of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, it will decide the issue anew. And just like the court's unsettling foray into the affirmative action debate, for marginalized communities there may be reason for concern.

The case is Shelby County v. Holder and it concerns the one provision that has helped hundreds of thousands of latino voters to exercise their right to vote, and to have their collective votes counted, without discrimination. The provision is Section 5. It applies only to certain parts of the country that have had a history of discrimination against black, latino, Asian-American or Native-American voters and it forces those jurisdictions to get federal permission in advance of changing their election laws and policies. By forcing this preclearance the Voting Rights Act ensures that there's a check on potential discrimination before it happens. Jurisdictions that can prove no discrimination for 10 years can bail out, jurisdictions that have been found to intentionally discriminate against minority voters can be added by court order.

Latinos need to pay attention. The four states with the largest latino populations, California, Texas, Florida and New York, all have Section 5 jurisdictions. And all of them have a history and a present-day record of discrimination against latino voters. All of them have had success in electing Latino representatives. Those two phenomena are connected. The Voting Rights Act is considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in history precisely because it has racially and ethnically integrated our legislative bodies.

In 2006 Congress reauthorized Section 5 and the bilingual assistance provisions of the Act for 25 years with overwhelming bipartisan support. It was passed 99 to 0 in the Senate and was signed by a Republican president, George W. Bush. This exercise in enforcing the promises of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution in federal elections may be for naught if the Supreme Court upholds "states rights" over the establishment of national norms for voting.

In New York City three boroughs are covered under the Act, Bronx, New York and Brooklyn, and lawyers and activists have used Section 5 repeatedly to stop discriminatory redistricting plans, efforts to halt bilingual polling materials, and efforts to change the ways votes are counted. Today, both city and state officials recognize the efficiency of Section 5 preclearance and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman supports the Voting Rights Act in this case.

Nationally, less than 2 percent of all elected officials are latino, when they are by far the largest minority in the country at 16 percent. Every time latinos flex their political strength there's a backlash, like voter ID laws, criminalization of third-party voter registration, curtailing of early election days, etc. Now with comprehensive immigration reform on the horizon because latino voters came out in force in November Section 5 should be upheld Voting Rights Act. Now more than ever.