Voting Rights Act

  • February 22, 2013
    Guest Post

    by Spencer Overton, Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School and author of the book Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression. This post is part of an ACSblog symposium on Shelby County v. Holder.

    Many who assert the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder should uphold the preclearance and coverage provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act disagree with the Court’s 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Bd. of Elections that upheld Indiana’s photo identification requirement.  On the other hand, those who oppose Section 5 cite Crawford as a reason Section 5 is allegedly unconstitutional. 

    An honest reading of Crawford, however, provides five reasons the Court should now defer to Congress’s determinations regarding the coverage and preclearance provisions of Section 5. 

    1.  Legal Issue:  In Crawford, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Indiana ID requirement did not unconstitutionally burden the right to vote (the Court did not address whether ID discriminated on the basis of race).  The plaintiff in Shelby County seeks to undermine Congress’s authority under the 14th and 15th Amendments by making the novel claim that the coverage provision violates a “principle of state equality” -- but the U.S. Constitution contains no such requirement

    2.  Record:  In Crawford, the U.S. Supreme Court deferred to Indiana’s interest in preventing fraud despite the fact “[t]he record contain[ed] no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history.”  In Shelby County v. Holder, the Court should defer to a 2006 Congressional reauthorization process that featured 21 hearings, over 90 witnesses, and a 15,000-page record that showed that contemporary voting discrimination remains concentrated in covered states.  For example, Congress found that the Justice Department lodged over 700 objections to voting changes enacted by covered jurisdictions since Congress previously reauthorized Section 5 in 1982.  Congress also considered the “Katz Study,” which showed that covered jurisdictions account for less than 25 percent of the nation’s population but 56 percent of the successful published Section 2 voting rights cases.  The percentage of documented elections with extreme white bloc voting was 80.7 percent in covered jurisdictions, compared to 40.9 percent in uncovered jurisdictions. 

  • February 15, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Alabama officials will take to the U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27 to try to gut the Voting Rights Act’s integral enforcement provision, Section 5. And their argument, what the Constitutional Accountability Center’s Simon Lazarus calls the “goofy gripe,” rests largely on the claims that racial discrimination in voting happens everywhere and so why pick on certain states.

    Lazarus notes, however, that just last year the Voting Rights prime enforcement provision was employed by the Justice Department to scuttle “vote suppression techniques familiar to all who followed the 2012 campaign: stringent voter ID laws, curtailed early voting opportunities, and discriminatorily rigged redistricting plans.”

    But the Alabama officials’ arguments are more than goofy, they’re ludicrous. There’s a reason why Section 5 remains relevant, because tawdry, bigoted attempts to deny minorities the right to vote remain the most intense in specific states and localities.

    First let’s start with some basics. The Constitution’s Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments bar the states from depriving citizens of liberty and from denying the right to vote to minorities. Moreover, both amendments include sections granting Congress, not the courts, the power to craft appropriate legislation to enforce the promise of both Amendments.

    When Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act it determined that some states and localities, mostly in the South, had much deeper and more intense histories of oppressing African Americans, including keeping them away from the polls. So Congress included a rather strong enforcement mechanism, Section 5, which would require those covered jurisdictions to obtain “preclearance” for any changes to their voting procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. In 2006 Congress in bipartisan fashion overwhelmingly reauthorized Section 5 for another 25 years, after amassing a voluminous record showing that the covered jurisdictions by far remained the most fertile ground for racial discrimination in voting. The evidence was that although progress had been made in the South, there remained a stubborn bigotry resulting in ongoing efforts to suppress the minority vote.

    During an ACS panel discussion this week on the case challenging Section 5, Shelby County v. Holder, several panelists noted stories from Texas, Alabama and other covered jurisdictions of “serial” efforts to suppress or dilute the vote of minorities. For example in 2008 Alabama officials, as NAACP LDF’s Ryan P. Haygood recounted, sought to implement a discriminatory redistricting plan to drastically reduce the sole majority black district in the state by creating hundreds of annexations, without obtaining preclearance. When the Justice Department did review the redistricting plan, it was rejected as discriminatory. Nonetheless the officials held the election with the discriminatory redistricting scheme and the DOJ lodged a Section 5 enforcement action undoing the election and requiring another election to be held. (LDF is representing voters in Alabama in the Shelby County case; for more on Section 5 and Shelby County see ACS’s Voting Rights Resources page.) Video of panel discussion is below or here.

     

  • January 23, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Lawmakers in Congress are not giving up on an effort to counter some of the state laws that have made it increasingly difficult to vote and that helped create long lines and waiting times for voters during November’s general elections.

    Earlier today, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and other House members, reintroduced the Voter Empowerment Act, while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced a companion version in the Senate.

    Over the past couple of years, state Republican lawmakers have created, with varying degrees of success, hurdles to voting. Those obstacles, such as limiting early voting, creating onerous voter ID requirements, and making it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives, were targeted largely at urban voters, minorities, college students and the elderly. (Victoria Bassetti, author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters wrote last fall about the cumbersome voting process in America, saying it mystified other countries. “In the United States, we put the burden on the voter. And in doing so, we keep company with nations such as the Bahamas, Belize and Burundi,” she wrote for The Washington Post.

    During the lame-duck session of Congress, the Senate Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing to examine some of measures hampering voters, and several of those measures were produced by states, such as Texas, South Carolina, and parts of Florida that are covered by the Voting Rights Act. Specifically Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires covered jurisdictions – those with the worst histories and patterns of racial discrimination in voting – to obtain preclearance for any changes to their voting procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. Several of the witnesses argued that beyond new federal efforts to modernize voting nationwide, Section 5 was still essential to ensure that newly created voting procedures do not discriminate against minority voters. (The U.S. Supreme Court will soon hear oral arguments in a case from Shelby County, Ala., challenging the constitutionality of Section 5.)

  • January 11, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Hardly surprising, but another Alabama official is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate an integral provision of the Voting Rights Act. Efforts to suppress the votes of minorities no longer exist, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange argues in a brief lodged with the U.S. Supreme Court, which will hear oral argument on Feb. 27 in a case challenging provisions of the landmark civil rights law, including its primary enforcement provision, Section 5.

    The attorney general concedes in his brief that the state still “grapples with race relations issues, but they are the same kind of issues every state currently is endeavoring to solve,” reports Mary Orndorff Troyan for the Montgomery Advertiser.

    Strange’s brief is filed in support of a lawsuit brought by Shelby County, Ala., “a conservative, mostly white county south of Birmingham,” as Troyan describes it. In Shelby County v. Holder, the officials argue that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional because it covers some but not all states. Section 5 requires all or parts of 16 states to obtain “preclearance” of proposed changes to voting procedures from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. Section 5 of the law was intended to ensure that states and localities and with long histories of suppressing the vote of minorities do not create discriminatory voting procedures.

    The NAACP LDF, which has intervened in the case to represent voters, argues that Section 5 remains central to the Voting Rights Act because it works to block discrimination before it occurs. LDF and other civil rights organizations have noted that the Supreme Court has ruled on numerous occasions that Section 5 is constitutional and that in 2006 Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Voting Rights Act. Congress, in reauthorizing the law, created a record “consisting of 15,000 pages of evidence” supporting the ongoing need for a strong enforcement provision.

  • November 28, 2012

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Gerrymandering is such a tried and tested electioneering technique that one might think that the founders intended for political parties to draw boundaries for congressional districts to suit their interests. Given that one of the first uses of the gerrymander was on the part of Anti-Federalists in Virginia to keep James Madison out of the House of Representatives that may well be the case. But, after a round of district drawing following the 2010 census, have the parties finally taken it too far? Now that the 2012 election results are in, for the most part, we can see the effect of partisan redistricting on the composition of the House. While that effect probably wasn’t enough to shift control of the House to the Democrats, it was enough to heavily dilute Democratic voters in several key states.

    But, before getting into that, what allows political parties to exercise so much control over the process of drawing congressional districts in the first place? The Constitution mandates that congressional districts be re-drawn after every census to reflect changes in population distribution; but how this is accomplished is largely left to states’ discretion. The two bedrock principles all states are supposed to abide by are “one person, one vote,” the idea that voters in different districts should have roughly equivalent voting power; and that districts cannot be drawn for the purpose of diluting minority voting power. However, in League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, the Supreme Court largely rejected a challenge brought by Texas voters that the redistricting scheme dreamed up by the Republican legislature was wholly unconstitutional, in part because the justices believed that there was no workable test for judging partisan excess.