Yesterday, a bipartisan, bicameral group of legislators introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, legislation sponsored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and House Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) in the House and by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate. The bill represents a much-needed and significant first step in the effort to respond to the void left by the Supreme Court’s decision seven months ago in Shelby County v. Holder that invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”).
Before Shelby, Section 5 of the VRA required certain jurisdictions with a documented history of racial discrimination in voting to submit any changes in voting laws and procedures to either the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) or a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for review, a process known as “preclearance.” Most voting changes in these “covered jurisdictions” were approved quickly and routinely, but practices that were found by DOJ or the court to be racially discriminatory were blocked from taking effect. However, in Shelby, a five-justice majority invalidated the coverage formula used to determine which jurisdictions were covered by Section 5, finding that it was outdated and insufficiently tailored to the existence of racial discrimination in voting today. The Court took this unprecedented step even though Congress had overwhelmingly voiced its determination – by votes of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House – that the coverage formula was appropriately responsive to continued racial discrimination in voting in the covered jurisdictions.
As a result of the Court’s decision, Section 5 was effectively nullified. The weeks and months following Shelby confirmed that while our Nation has made great strides towards addressing racial discrimination in voting, such discrimination has not been eradicated, as several previously covered states and jurisdictions swiftlyenactedlaws that would have been subject to preclearance – and potentially blocked – prior to Shelby.
This past June, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision in “arguably one of the most successful acts passed by Congress in any area,” said Richard Reuben, the James Lewis Parks Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law, at a recent event on Shelby County v. Holder hosted by the ACS University of Missouri School of Law Student Chapter.
The affected provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 4(b), contains the coverage formula for determining which jurisdictions are subject to a preclearance requirement before they can amend their voting laws. Section 5 details the logistics of the requirement, which was designed to target states and local governments with a history of discriminatory practices. By declaring Section 4(b) unconstitutional under the claim that the formula was based on obsolete data, the Court essentially nullified Section 5. States that were once required to have a federal court or the Department of Justice sign off on changes to voter law may now proceed unchecked.
Appeals to Section 2 result from policies or practices in voting areas with a discriminatory purpose or result. Sadly, explained Ms. Fernandes, these after-the-fact remedies often take a long time, are very expensive and result in complicated litigation. Violations of the Fifteenth Amendment may also be remedied by preclearance requirements set forth in Section 3(c). Yet intentional discrimination must be a predicate in these cases, she said, and courts do not often find said discrimination.
In a post-Shelby world, Ms. Fernandes identified the need for a new, data-driven preclearance formula; the expansion of federal courts’ ability to institute preclearance requirements; and public notice and disclosure of voting law changes.
Several years before the U.S. Supreme Court greatly hobbled the landmark Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a federal appeals court circuit provided a significant boost to ignoble state efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, students, the poor and the elderly. In Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit turned away a constitutional challenge and upheld a stringent voter ID law in Indiana.
Recently Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner, who authored the Court’s opinion that was subsequently upheld the by the U.S. Supreme Court, said he erred. Posner (pictured), who now says laws like Indiana’s are “widely regarded” as tools to suppress the vote, suggested that his error in Crawford was partly due to poor presentation of the evidence that the law would disproportionately suppress groups of voters. (In this piece for ACSblog, longtime Supreme Court litigator Paul M. Smith, who argued Crawford before the high court, explains why Posner had plenty of compelling information to vote the other way and invalidate the Indiana law.)
Ifill writes, “Without a doubt, lawyers advancing claims of discrimination should have to prove their case. But judges also should be aware of their own lack of experience and knowledge.”
For example, Ifill cites a 2010 opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that rejected a racial discrimination lawsuit, claiming there was not sufficient evidence that a white supervisor calling a black worker “boy” amounted to racism. Ifill then turned to the more recent Shelby County opinion, where the high court’s conservative justices banded together to decided “that they were better positioned than Congress to determine whether racial discrimination in voting still justifies the coverage regime that existed under” the Voting Rights Act. “Not even 15,000 pages of evidence and testimony could convince the court that Congress got it right.”
The problem here, Ifill explains is that we all imagine we are experts on what accounts for discrimination. The truth is we are not, including judges. “We are too often,” Ifill writes “unwilling or unable to defer to the substantiated experiences of those who stand directly vulnerable to discrimination in voting, housing, employment and countless other arenas.”
And many voters, primarily minorities, continue to suffer as state after state creates new and onerous hurdles to voting. Posner may now be able to acknowledge what many others do – too many state voter ID laws are all about suppressing the vote. But as Ifill explains, many judges are just ill-equipped to understand the scope and depth of discrimination despite the evidence provided them.
“Constitution and Citizenship Day,” as it is formerly called, was once known only as Citizenship Day in commemoration of the countless immigrants who have chosen to uphold the U.S. constitution and claim the nationality of this country. One of the most important badges of citizenship, however, is not enshrined in the constitution -- the right to vote.
African Americans, women, and persons as young as 18 years of age were all granted voting rights through constitutional amendments. Those amendments established the conditions upon which the right to vote could not be denied but did not grant a universal, affirmation, and equal right to vote for all citizens. Indeed, the need for serial amendments to create the diverse electorate we see today is evidence of this constitutional void.
The current assault on voter participation is also proof of this void. If there were an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution, it would be harder for Republican-led state legislatures to enact voter ID laws that disproportionately disenfranchise the poor, minorities, students, and the elderly, more difficult for states like Florida to carelessly purge eligible voters from registration rolls, and a greater obstacle for election officials to limit participation by curtailing early voting and over-regulating registration procedures.
Why then should the right to vote remain absent from one of the most revered constitutions in the world? It doesn’t have to. Earlier this year, Congressmen Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced a bill to amend the Constitution to include an affirmative right to vote. This idea has long been supported by organizations like Fair Vote which backs the current bill through its Promote the Vote campaign -- and its time has come.
As I’ve written for Reuters here, “at no time in recent history has the need for a right-to-vote amendment been more pronounced. The [Supreme] court’s ruling earlier this year in Shelby County v. Holder, disabling a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, calls for dramatic congressional action to both rehabilitate that landmark act and recommit to our constitutional ideals.” We would be remiss if we did not use this moment to reflect on the greatness of our Constitution and also flag its weaknesses. Indeed, there is no better time to kick-start a national discussion on the proposed right-to-vote amendment than during this celebration of both our Constitution and our citizenship, as neither is truly complete without an explicit right to vote.
by Atiba R. Ellis, Associate Professor, West Virginia University College of Law. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom represented the high point of the decades-long civil rights movement against Jim Crow apartheid. The March brought heightened international attention to African Americans’ demands for social, political, and economic justice. And the March offered a snapshot of the battle to awaken the moral imagination of the country. Indeed, the progress achieved in the 1960s battle for civil, political, and economic rights could not have been made without first winning the battle for the moral imagination of the United States.
The movement made apparent the injustices of Jim Crow. The movement called white America’s attention to the terrorism of lynching and bombings. The movement forced Americans to consider the effects of segregated facilities. The movement demanded equal participation for African Americans in the political process. The “I Have A Dream” speech spoke for many in the movement by setting out specifically the moral question of civil rights for African Americans to the country.
Dr. King sought not just to evoke the question, but also to show the necessity of answering the question immediately. He said that “[w]e . . . come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.” Yet, the question we must confront in 2013 is whether we have been tranquilized into the lethargy of gradualism concerning the work that needs to be done.
Fifty years ago, because of the public shaming of nonviolent protest, the majority society of 1963 could no longer ignore the tyranny of American apartheid. As a result, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. We can rightfully rejoice in the fact that America today cannot be called an “apartheid” country. But the majority society of 2013 seems to have forsaken the Civil Rights Movement’s call to moral imagination. Instead, many in society seem to have fallen victim to a new kind of gradualism.