Assistant AG Thomas Perez on Challenge to Voting Rights Act

February 14, 2013

by Andrew Hamm

Hundreds of thousands converged upon the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to witness Barack Obama take the oath of office for a second term as president. This act consummated the conferral of responsibility by the electorate, having exercised in November the fundamental right to vote that defines our nation. That defining right, however, has required constant protection – through marches, amendments, protests, and legislation – and with that vigilance.

Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Thomas Perez, at a recent discussion on elections issues at the University of Baltimore School of Law, explored an imminent threat to the right to vote – the challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the upcoming Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder. Perez explained how the Voting Rights Act emerged from a long and difficult struggle, manifest especially in the events of Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. In signing the act – the “crown jewel” of civil rights legislation – President Lyndon Johnson expressed the importance of the vote, “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice.” Section 5 requires certain states and localities, mostly in the South, with long histories of racial discrimination in voting to obtain “preclearance” of any proposed changes to their elections procedures from the DOJ or a federal court in Washington, D.C. (See ACS’s Voting Rights Act Resources Page for more on the VRA and the Shelby County case.)

Perez (pictured) emphasized that the struggle for equality and civil rights resembles a “marathon relay” for which “banishing the blight of racial discrimination in voting” is not yet complete. Although the Voting Rights Act has long enjoyed consistent bipartisan support, including reauthorization in 2006 by President Bush, it has recently come under intense assault. Having faced only eight challenges to its constitutionality between 1965 and 2010, the Act has since confronted ten lawsuits.

As Perez noted, recent attempts to change election procedures in South Carolina, Texas and Tennessee reveal continued overt and subtle discrimination by covered jurisdictions. South Carolina’s now pre-cleared voter ID law, to take effect in 2013, required extensive refashioning.  As a three-judge panel noted, “one cannot doubt the vital function that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has played here. Without the review process under the Voting Rights Act, South Carolina’s voter photo ID law certainly would have been more restrictive.” Texas’s redistricting process created the appearance of minority controlled districts that manipulated low minority turnout to maintain white over-representation in government. One county in Tennessee recently tried to move voting from the local public school to a private club that had previously hosted KKK meetings. Section 5 prevented these changes from becoming law.

Following his presentation, Perez was joined for a discussion by J. Gerald Hebert, a longtime voting rights attorney, and Gilda Daniels, Assistant Professor of Law at University of Baltimore School of Law. Hebert expressed concern that the Supreme Court’s current composition could endanger Section 5, despite the fact that it has been found constitutional three times since 1965. 

Daniels cited the work of Election Protection, run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law, which reported 25 million votes put at risk this past election. For instance, in Virginia, voters were deceived into thinking they could vote via cell phone. One woman, a Korean immigrant and U.S. citizen, did not vote after being told that she and her family needed her immigration papers to vote. Daniels encouraged lawyers and law students in attendance to become more knowledgeable about the process and to be vigilant about proposed legislation.