Alan I. Abramowitz adds some clarity to the debate over the continuing need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. in his Cystal Ball post “Why Section 5 Is Still Needed: Racial Polarization and the Voting Rights Act in the 21st Century“:
There is no doubt that old-fashioned racism has greatly diminished over the past 40 years throughout the nation and in the states covered by Section 5. However, there are good reasons to be concerned about how a decision to overturn Section 5 would affect the voting rights of African Americans and other minorities in these states — for reasons that are more political than racial. That’s because regardless of whether white political leaders in these states hold racist views, they have substantial political incentives for engaging in actions to suppress or dilute the minority vote.
In addition to a history of racial discrimination, the states covered by Section 5 are characterized by an exceptionally high degree of racial polarization in voting up to the present day. Whites and nonwhites in these states are deeply divided in their political preferences, resulting in a two-party system in which one party depends overwhelmingly on votes from whites and the other party depends overwhelmingly on votes from African Americans and other nonwhites. This racial polarization continues to provide a powerful incentive for leaders of the party that depends overwhelmingly on white votes to suppress or dilute the votes of African Americans and other minorities.
Abramowitz provides data showing racial polarization in voting patterns in states that are covered, as well as those that are not, “with African Americans making up only 1% of Republican voters in both sets of states.” He notes further that all nine covered states are now dominated by the GOP and adds:
…African Americans and other nonwhites made up 62% of the Democratic electoral coalition in the covered states versus only 35% in the rest of the country. African Americans by themselves made up 42% of Democratic voters in the states covered by Section 5, but only 19% of Democratic voters in the rest of the country. It is clear that Democratic candidates in the covered states are much more dependent on the votes of African Americans and other nonwhites than Democratic candidates in the rest of the country.
…Republican leaders in the states covered by Section 5 have frequently attempted to suppress or dilute the minority vote through actions such as enacting voter identification laws, changing voting dates, changing poll locations, replacing partisan elections with nonpartisan elections, switching from district-based to at-large elections and changing district boundaries. While such actions have occurred in other states, the evidence collected by Congress in 2006 showed that they occurred much more frequently in the states covered by Section 5. In numerous instances, only the power of the federal government to block such discriminatory laws and regulations has prevented their implementation.
On a surface level, any visitor to the modern south will see ample racial integration in terms of the workplace and socializing, though residential and school de facto segregation are still prevalent. Voter suppression in the covered states, in the past, as well as today, has always been about hording political power for the privileged. There is still raw racial bigotry in the covered states, though not as bad as it was before the Voting Rights Act. But today it’s even more about protecting political advantage for the Republicans. Section 5 has been a great equalizer in southern cities, which have been electing African American mayors for decades. At the state level, however, it’s a different story. As Abramowitz concludes: “Far from being outdated, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act may be needed more than ever in the coming decades.