Voting Rights Act

  • 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.

  • November 19, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    One of the nation’s preeminent civil and human rights groups, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), tapped as its new leader one of the nation’s foremost civil rights attorneys and scholars Sherrilyn Ifill. The late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall helped found LDF in 1940 and led the battle in its first couple of decades to end segregation of the public schools.

    Ifill (pictured), a frequent ACS participant, who has also occasionally provided guest posts for ACSblog, will be LDF’s next president and director-counsel in January. She is also a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, and as The Root notes is “no stranger to LDF’s work.”

    The Root continues:

    Early in her career, before joining the faculty of the University of Maryland School of Law, authoring On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, and making a name for herself as a respected civil rights strategist, she served as assistant counsel in LDF’s New York office. There, she litigated voting rights cases, including the landmark Voting Rights Act case Houston Lawyers' Association vs. Attorney General of Texas.

    In March, LDF’s sixth Director-Counsel and President John Payton died. Payton, like his predecessors at LDF, was also a tireless advocate for civil liberties and human rights. In a tribute piece to Payton, ACS Board member and former LDF Director-Counsel and President Theodore M. Shaw said Payton’s “advocacy on behalf of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the excluded reached beyond the United States. He worked against the apartheid in South Africa, and traveled around the world in support of rights.”     

  • October 12, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Just as the nation is beset with invidious and widespread voter fraud, according to rightwing pundits and activists, there exists little, if any, intent among state lawmakers to suppress the vote of certain groups of people, like minorities.

    But in reality claims of voter fraud are wobbly, for there’s not much evidence it actually exists and racial discrimination whether overt or latent most certainly continues to hinder the nation’s long and difficult march toward full equality for all.

    Earlier this week a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia blocked South Carolina’s voter ID law, R54, from being implemented for the 2012 elections. The federal court found that state election officials did not have sufficient time to implement the law in compliance with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits states from implementing laws that have the intent or the effect “of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” Section 5 requires states and localities with histories of denying minorities the right to vote, South Caroline is one such state, to get “pre-clearance” from the federal court in D.C. or the Department of Justice.   

    The federal court in South Carolina v. U.S. granted pre-clearance for S.C.’s voter ID law for future elections, but only after S.C. lawmakers had made revisions to the law to ensure it did not subvert the Voting Rights Act. In addition the court noted that racial discrimination still exists in this nation and highlighted the importance of the law’s Sec. 5 pre-clearance provision.

    In the majority opinion, Judge Brett Kavanaugh emphasized the continued need for Sec. 5, saying, “Racial insensitivity, racial bias, and indeed outright racism are still problems throughout the United States as of 2012. We see that reality on an all-too-frequent basis.”

    And the only reason the S.C. voter ID law won pre-clearance for future elections rested primarily on changes to the law that provided for a “reasonable impediment provision,” which is meant to “ensure that all voters of all races with non-photo voter registration cards continue to have access to the polling place to the same degree they did under” the state’s previous voter ID law. The reasonable impediment provision is supposed to allow voters who show up at their precincts without a photo ID to still cast a provisional ballot if they sign an affidavit saying why they could not obtain an ID, such as inability to travel to an office to get the ID, illness, work-related matters, among other subjective reasons. And the provisional ballot, according to how the law has been interpreted, will be counted unless evidence surfaces that an affidavit is false.

    But Media Matters’ Sergio Muñoz points out that some rightwing media are, perhaps not surprisingly, claiming that the decision is actually a ringing endorsement of the need to kill Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act.