Allison Kilkenny: Unreported

Uphold the Voting Rights Act

Posted in civil rights, politics, racism, Supreme Court, voter disenfranchisement by allisonkilkenny on January 25, 2009

New York Times

m319-150bSome people claim that Barack Obama’s election has ushered in a “postracial” America, but the truth is that race, and racial discrimination, are still very much with us. The Supreme Court should keep this reality in mind when it considers a challenge to an important part of the Voting Rights Act that it recently agreed to hear. The act is constitutional — and clearly still needed.

Section 5, often called the heart of the Voting Rights Act, requires some states and smaller jurisdictions to “preclear” new voting rules with the Justice Department or a federal court. When they do, they have to show that the proposed change does not have the purpose or effect of discriminating against minority voters.

When Congress enacted Section 5 in 1965, officials in the South were creating all kinds of rules to stop blacks from voting or being elected to office. Discrimination against minority voters may not be as blatant as it was then, but it still exists. District lines are drawn to prevent minorities from winning; polling places are located in places hard for minority voters to get to; voter ID requirements are imposed with the purpose of suppressing the minority vote.

After holding lengthy hearings to document why the Voting Rights Act was still needed, Congress reauthorized it in 2006 with votes of 98 to 0 in the Senate and 390 to 33 in the House. Now, a municipal utility district in Texas that is covered by Section 5 is arguing that it is unconstitutional, and that it imposes too many burdens on jurisdictions covered by it.

If the Supreme Court — which is expected to hear arguments in the case this spring — strikes down Section 5, it would be breaking radically with its own precedents. The court has repeatedly upheld the Voting Rights Act against challenges, and as recently as 2006 it ruled that complying with Section 5 is a compelling state interest. It would also be an extreme case of conservative judicial activism, since the 14th and 15th Amendments expressly authorize Congress to enact laws of this sort to prevent discrimination in voting.

A perennial criticism of Section 5 is that it covers jurisdictions it should not, or fails to cover ones it should. There is no way to construct a perfect list, but Congress has done a reasonable job of drawing up the criteria, and it has built flexibility into the act. Jurisdictions are allowed to “bail out” if they can show that they no longer need to be covered, and courts can add new jurisdictions if they need to be covered.

In last fall’s election, despite his strong national margin of victory — and hefty campaign chest — Mr. Obama got only about one in five white votes in the Southern states wholly or partly covered by Section 5. And there is every reason to believe that minority voters will continue to face obstacles at the polls.

If Section 5 is struck down, states and localities would have far more freedom to erect barriers for minority voters — and there is little doubt that some would do just that. We have not arrived at the day when special protections like the Voting Rights Act are not needed.

Supreme Court to Hear Challenge to Voting Rights Act

Posted in Barack Obama, politics, racism, Supreme Court, voter disenfranchisement by allisonkilkenny on January 11, 2009

Note from Allison: Great news, everyone! Racism is OVER!

USA Today

mlkThe 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.