Political Scientist Rick Valelly '75 Joins in Opposing Court Challenge to Voting Rights Act Enforcement

by Celina De Léon
Rick Valelly '75
Claude C. Smith '14 Professor of Political Science Rick Valelly '75

Claude C. Smith '14 Professor of Political Science Rick Valelly '75 joined 29 other leading political scientists and historians across the nation in filing an amicus brief that urges the Supreme Court to uphold the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A case currently before the Court, Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, challenges the constitutionality of Section 5, the Act's main enforcement mechanism. More than 25 briefs have been filed in support of Section 5. The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case today. 

"A review of our nation's troubled racial past reveals that the long fight for equal citizenship has been subject to shocking reversals," says Valelly, author of a recent Huffington Post column in support of the Act and The Two Reconstructions: The Struggle for Black Enfranchisement. "Given that history, we need to sustain a national commitment to protecting these rights."

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlaws discriminatory practices that have disenfranchised racial and ethnic minority groups in the U.S. and that still have the potential to re-emerge and to impede the voting rights of such groups in the U.S. The Act also helps to ensure racial minority office-holding. After legislators from both political parties passed the law in 1965, Congress has renewed and strengthened the Act several times. The most recent renewal occurred in 2006, with support by President George W. Bush, and by an overwhelming majority in both the House and Senate. Now the Supreme Court will review this bipartisan decision as it applies to Section 5.

Section 5 regulates all or part of 16 states, the majority of which are in the southern part of the nation, and a handful of counties in the rest of the country, all of which have histories of discriminatory voting practices. The law requires that these jurisdictions receive prior approval, known as "pre-clearance," from the U.S. Department of Justice or from a federal court before they can make any change that may affect voting, such as the drawing of district lines and the location of polling places. The case will determine whether Shelby County, or any other county or state, must still comply with this requirement.

Valelly, who received a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1984, is an expert on American party politics, election law, voting rights, and the institutional development of the House and the Senate. His book, The Two Reconstructions, won several awards. He has been a research scholar at Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research, at the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at the Woodrow School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Currently he is a recipient of a fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies.