Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Voting Rights Act
Note from Allison: Great news, everyone! Racism is OVER!
The Supreme Court announced Friday that it will hear a challenge to the landmark 1965 voting rights act, paving the way for a major decision this term on federal power to oversee state election laws.
In the backdrop is the recent election of Barack Obama and the question of whether America still needs an expansive law protecting against discrimination in voting now that a black man has won the presidency.
A decision in the case from Texas, to be heard in April, could impact the U.S. government’s authority to ensure that racial minorities — who were subjected to literacy tests and other devices to keep them from the polls for most of the 20th Century — continue to have as much of a chance as whites to elect candidates of their choice.
In dispute is the 2006 renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which Congress passed overwhelmingly and President Bush signed.
Richard Hasen, an election-law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said the dispute “has the potential to be the most important election case since Bush v. Gore.” That 2000 decision cut off Florida ballot recounts and ensured Bush the White House.
“The court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality (of the disputed provision),” Hasen noted. “The question is whether the role of race in American politics has so changed in the last decade or two that remedies that were once constitutional are now considered impingements on state sovereignty.”
A Texas utility district says the provision known as Section 5, which gives the U.S. government authority to oversee state electoral-law changes, is no longer needed and is unconstitutional. The utility district uses the election of the first black president as evidence.
“The America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when Section 5 was first enacted in 1965,” say lawyers for the utility district.
Section 5 covers nine states and several counties and municipalities where, as Justice Department lawyers note, race discrimination “has been most flagrant.” Texas utility district lawyer Gregory Coleman says the continued use of that section attaches a “badge of shame … based on old data” and should be lifted.
Civil rights activists, backing the Justice Department’s defense of the renewed Voting Rights Act, have stressed that parts of the nation continue to vote along racial lines and argue that the law that opened the door to widespread black voting four decades ago is still needed.
“Obama’s election reflects an enormous advancement in race relations in the United States,” says Laughlin McDonald of the American Civil Liberties Union. “But voting, particularly in the southern states covered by the oversight provision, remains significantly polarized along racial lines.”
Exit polls from the Nov. 4 presidential election showed that whites in many southern states heavily favored John McCain to Obama. In Texas, 73% of whites favored McCain; in Georgia, 76%, and in Alabama, 88%. Nationally, the percentage of whites for McCain was 55%, exit poll data show.
Last May, a special lower court unanimously upheld the provision. U.S. Appeals Court Judge David Tatel wrote, “(G)iven the extensive legislative record documenting contemporary racial discrimination in voting in covered jurisdictions, Congress’s decision to extend Section 5 for another twenty-five years was rational and therefore constitutional.”
States covered by jurisdictions cannot make any changes to their electoral laws without getting approval from the Department of Justice or a federal district court in Washington. The requirement is designed to ensure that a local government does not draw new voting-district boundaries or enact rules that would dilute the votes of blacks or other minorities.
The law passed the Senate unanimously and the House by 390-33 in 2006.
U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre had emphasized in his filing to the court all the evidence Congress reviewed when it reauthorized the law, including “several instances of minority voters’ being threatened with arrest or prosecution for voting.” He said that significant gaps in registration rates between minorities and white citizens continue to exist and that the threat of Section 5 is a significant deterrent in states and municipalities where white majorities might want to adopt electoral plans that dilute the power of black voters.
The utility district, which conducts elections to select its board of directors, says its policies should not be subject to regular DOJ review. Coleman says federal law has sufficient protections for any voter racial bias that occurs.
The case is Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Mukasey.