Section 5

  • March 15, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, also called the “motor voter” bill) was enacted to make it easier for people to register to vote. It promotes voter registration drives and requires states to permit people to register to vote via a simple postcard when they obtain or renew their drivers’ licenses or through the mail.

    But some states have chosen to move in the opposition direction. For example, Florida in its overhaul of voting procedures not only attempted to limit early voting, it sought to make it onerous for groups like the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registration drives. Arizona enacted a law that would make it more difficult for people to register through the mail, by demanding more proof of citizenship.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has already heard oral argument in a case challenging the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires certain states and towns – those with a clear history of past problems – to obtain “preclearance” of any changes they make to their voting procedures to ensure they do not discriminate against voters because of race. Several of the high court’s right-wing justices appeared ready to strike the preclearance provision in Section 5 of the law. If that were to happen it would deal a significant blow to one of the nation’s most powerful tools to combat racial discrimination in voting.

    On Monday, the high court will hear oral argument in another case challenging the federal government’s constitutional power to protect the right to vote. In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., the justices will consider an opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that invalidated the Arizona law, saying the NRVA cannot be undermined by the states.

    In a friend-of-the-court brief lodged with the Court, the League of Women Voters urges the justices to hold that the NVRA overrides states’ attempts to restrict voting.

    “States should not be allowed to play politics with the voter registration process, the key entry point for political participation in our democracy,” the League’s President Barbara Klein said in a press releaseannouncing the group’s brief.

    The Brennan Center and the Constitutional Accountability Center have also weighed in with an amicus brief urging the court to support the federal government’s constitutional authority to protect the right to vote.

     

  • March 7, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor of Law, West Virginia University College of Law

    In my earlier guest blog on Shelby County, AL v. Holder, I suggested that the conservative justices of the Supreme Court would be tempted to offer a post-racialist narrative concerning the pre-clearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. 

    The justices did not disappoint. Justice Anthony Kennedy asked whether Alabama should remain “under the trusteeship of the United States government.” Chief Justice John Roberts asked whether “the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North.” Both of these comments implicitly ask whether the long history of race has been atoned for once and for all.

    And then there was Justice Antonin Scalia’s statement on the Voting Rights Act. In explaining the almost unanimous consensus for the 2006 reauthorization of Section 5, Scalia said:

    Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

    On one level, this quote fits the post-racial narrative. Yet Justice Scalia intended a deeper message by invoking the rhetoric of “racial entitlement.” That message is the ahistorical belief that race-conscious analysis is immoral and leads to corrupt outcomes. Establishing this concept is part of a larger post-racial agenda (as we have seen already in the affirmative action debates), and the Voting Rights Act is the latest battleground. Yet, if applied to the right to vote, it will fly in the face of the plain text of the Constitution and our democratic consensus to insure equality in voting.

  • March 6, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    A party bent on pushing economic policies that did not win the day during the 2012 elections and is beholden in general to a Tea Party antigovernment agenda is now signaling it has no concern if one of the nation’s greatest civil rights laws is gutted by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

    The Huffington Post reports that “a sampling of Senate Republicans” finds that many “are just as ready as he [Justice Antonin Scalia) is to toss the heart of the Voting Rights Act, its Section 5, which prevents states with a history of racial discrimination from altering their voting laws without federal approval.”

    Although apparently difficult for the sampled senators to respond to the question, many said that "Section 5’s time has come and gone, and that Southern states should be treated no differently than then the rest of the nation.”

    Senate Minority Whip John Conyer (R-Texas), The Post continued, said there should be no covered states or that all states should “not be treated differently.”

    The high court’s right-wing bloc did show through some of its questioning during oral argument in Shelby County its hostility to Section 5, even in the face of vast evidence provided in voluminous briefs before the court that some states, such as Alabama, have a far higher percentage of successful challenges to claims of racial discrimination in voting.

     

  • March 1, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Following oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder several court-watchers, to the consternation of some, wrote that the Voting Rights Act’s integral enforcement provision, Section 5, looked to be on the chopping block largely based on courtroom theatrics.

    But many of those court-watchers, such as The New York Times’ Adam Liptak, noted that it was indeed risky to make  predications based only on oral argument, while nonetheless pointing out that in 2009 in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts and other members of the high court’s right-wing bloc made it rather clear that Congress should revisit the formula used to determine what states are covered by Section 5.

    As Liptak noted, Congress did not revisit the formula. And what happened during oral argument earlier this week? You had the Court’s right-wing justices grousing over the same things they did in Northwest. So it doesn’t take much of a leap to figure Justice Anthony Kennedy, who asked how much longer must Alabama remain under U.S. “trusteeship” is ready to join Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito in striking Section 5, by ending the use of the formula. (Section 5 requires states and localities, mostly in the South, to get “preclearance” of any proposed changes to their voting laws and procedures to ensure that they do not have the effect of discriminating against voters. The Constitution’s 14th and 15th Amendments provide Congress the power to take appropriate action to ensure that states do not deprive people of liberty or discriminate against voters because of their race.)

    The Brennan Center’s Myrna Pérez writes that the “arguments themselves do not provide much predictive value,” and that little was discussed during oral argument “over what exactly Congress needed to do differently to have appropriately fulfilled its duties.”

    ACS President Caroline Fredrickson also told TPM’s Sahil Kapur that the “silver lining is ultimately oral arguments are rarely a predictor of outcomes of the case.”

    Yep, lots of folks were predicating Kennedy would save the day for the Obama administration’s landmark health care reform law the Affordable Care Act. And of course we know how that turned out.

    As noted on this blog numerous times, Section 5 is the power behind the Voting Rights Act and Congress has the constitutional authority to combat racial discrimination in voting. Section 5, reauthorized in 2006, has helped prevent states bent on suppressing the votes of minorities from doing so, including Alabama, South Carolina, Texas and Florida. Without Section 5, those states will have great leeway in pursuing schemes to dilute the minority vote.

     

  • February 26, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Professor Justin Levitt says Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act provides elasticity – that is covered jurisdictions complaining about federal intrusions have a way to “bail-out,” by showing that their proposed changes to voting laws would not discriminate against minority voters. And Prof. Gabriel J. Chin says the Supreme Court, when it considers the constitutionality of Section 5 in Shelby County v. Holder, should refrain from overreaching, allowing Congress to do its job, which in part entails enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

    See their posts and others in the ACSblog symposium on the Shelby County case, which the justices will hear oral argument in tomorrow.

    Janai S. Nelson, a professor of law at St. John’s University School of Law, in a post for Reuters also provides some excellent insight into the viability of Section 5. (Section 5 requires certain states and towns, mostly in the South, with long histories of racial discrimination in voting to obtain “preclearance” for proposed changes to their elections laws and procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington.)

    She notes that a major aim of Section 5 centers on ensuring that “new voting laws will not ‘retrogress’ – or harm – minority voting rights.”

    And as many have noted, during the 2012 elections the Department of Justice successfully employed Section 5 to prevent discriminatory elections laws from going into effect in several covered jurisdictions, such as Texas, Florida and South Carolina. (See the ACS Voting Rights Resources page for more information on this case and the landmark law.)

    Section 5, Nelson continues, has “changed the discourse around race in backrooms and in courtrooms by requiring that electoral decision-makers are not only aware of race but also are conscious of the racial harm. Indeed, Section 5’s anti-regression standard directs jurisdictions subject to oversight either to advance or, at a minimum, protect minority voting rights.”

    As noted here, Alabama officials are arguing against Section 5 partly by saying that racial discrimination is no greater in Alabama than in other states and therefore it should be dumped or greatly reworked to not burden Alabama or the other covered jurisdictions. The NAACP LDF, which is representing Alabama voters in Shelby County, says Alabama officials are turning a blind eye to the persistent efforts to harm minority voters in the state – like rewriting voting districts to dilute the minority vote, while giving more power to white voters.

    Nelson also adds that progress made in the covered jurisdictions should not lead one to conclude that Section 5 has done its job and is now an unconstitutional tool the federal government is unnecessarily wielding.

    The fact, she writes, “that the record of discrimination in covered jurisdictions has diminished is evidence that Section 5 is working – not that it has exhausted its usefulness.”

    Nelson, and other staunch supporters of the Voting Rights Act, is nailing it – Section 5 is working and the Supreme Court’s right-wing bloc, if it could keep its ideological leanings in check, would not block Congress’s constitutional authority to ensure the promise of both Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.