In Alabama, Voting Decision Seen As Sign Of Progress, Setback In the state where the Supreme Court case got its start, many officials lauded the justices' ruling as an acknowledgement that times have changed. But others are skeptical that enough progress has really been made.


In Alabama, Voting Decision Seen As Sign Of Progress, Setback

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: I'm Debbie Elliott. The challenge to the Voting Rights Act comes from the very state that helped shape the statute - Alabama. Today's opinion notes that history did not stop in 1965, the year state troopers fired tear gas and beat back voting rights protesters on Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge. Pointing out that Selma is now governed by an African-American mayor, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.

Republican Attorney General Luther Strange of Alabama calls the ruling historic.

LUTHER STRANGE: What I'm most pleased about is a recognition of the tremendous amount of progress that we've made in Alabama over the last 50 years.

ELLIOTT: Governors and other officials from southern states are lauding the decision as a victory for federalism and as an acknowledgement that those states should no longer be punished for activities more than a generation ago. Strange says there's no doubt the federal oversight was needed in the '60s, but times have changed.

STRANGE: Now, treat Alabama the way all the other states are treated is a huge victory, symbolically, I think, and practically.

ELLIOTT: Practically, for instance, Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and other Southern states that would have previously had to seek federal approval can now put in place recently passed voter identification laws.

CHARLES STEELE: Well, that's just like poll tax, the voter ID laws. That's taking us back.

ELLIOTT: Charles Steele, from Alabama, is national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He calls the court decision today a blow to democracy that hearkens to unfair poll tests under Jim Crowe.

STEELE: When you say voter ID and bring your birth certificate, well, identify yourself and I mean, (unintelligible) and a bar of soap is no different than presenting us with all of these obstacles when it comes to vote to prove that we are an American citizen.

ELLIOTT: In Shelby County, Alabama, the fast-growing suburb of Birmingham that challenged the Voting Rights Act, the ruling is being met with mixed reaction. State Senator Cam Ward says it's wrong to apply Civil Rights era standards today when black participation at the polls is on par with that of whites.

STATE SENATOR CAM WARD: Alabama - Shelby County, Alabama in particular - is not 1966 Shelby County, Alabama. We've had African-Americans and other minorities elected to the municipal, county and countywide offices here in this county.

ELLIOTT: But others are skeptical that enough progress has come. The Rev. Albert Jones of Mt. Olive Baptist Church had intervened in the case to preserve federal oversight of elections there.

REV. ALBERT JONES: We have come a long way, but we are not where we need to be there. We're not there. We're still not there at that level playing field that all citizens be treated equally.

ELLIOTT: Jones says he's hopeful Congress can restore some federal jurisdiction. Shelby County Attorney Butch Ellis, who filed the challenge, also welcomes a new formula from Congress.

BUTCH ELLIS: Come up with a test that actually identifies where that discrimination is today, not where it was 50 years ago.

ELLIOTT: In the meantime, he says, the Voting Rights Act is alive and well, and people can sue under section 2, if they've been disenfranchised. Debbie Elliot, NPR News.

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