Brief: What’s Going On with The Voting Rights Act?
You’ve probably heard something about it in the last month or so, but never got the full story - some crazy shit has been going down concerning voting rights and election processes in America, all thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of certain parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA)- here’s what you need to know.
At the end of June this year, the Supreme Court ruled that a key component of the VRA was unconstitutional in the case Shelby County v. Holder; Shelby County is a county in Alabama with a history of racial discrimination, while Eric Holder is the Attorney General of the United States.
In a 5-4 decision, the court specifically ruled that Section 4(b) of the VRA was unconstitutional. This section dictates that certain parts of the United States must receive pre-clearance (usually from the Department of Justice, occasionally from a federal court) before they can make any changes in their election laws - these districts are ones that have a history of voting discrimination, a list that includes Shelby County. While they did not rule that the pre-clearance process itself was unconstitutional, the formula that is used to decide which areas of the country need pre-clearance was struck down.
Section 5 of the VRA is what makes it legal for the government to mandate that areas with a history of racial discrimination receive pre-clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court before making any voting law changes. The court did not rule on Section 5, meaning that the Justice Department still has the authority to decide which jurisdictions need pre-clearance - but they can no longer use the existing formula to do so, and unless Congress decides on new guidelines, Section 5 is practically irrelevant.
Opponents of Section 5 said that “the violence, intimidation and subterfuge that led Congress to pass Section 5 and this court to uphold it no longer remains,” and believed that the pre-clearance is irrelevant since nowadays voting discrimination is effectively solved.
Supported believed that it’s still a necessary preventive measure against voter discrimination - including voter ID lines, long lines and other adjustments that could threaten the rights of minority voters.
Going forward, it is up to Congress to decide on a new formula to outline which areas will be subject to pre-clearance under Section 5 - but with the status of Congress as it is, any sort of action seems unlikely.
Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder said that he will do whatever he can do fight against voter discrimination in light of the Court’s decision. Holder has promised to file a case against a new Texas law that many believe will result in minority discrimination at the polls.
The Line-Item: The Voting Rights Act is a pretty meaty document - it has a lot going on. The Supreme Court only struck down a single part of the document, Section 4, which detailed the procedure and criteria that the government would use to decide which districts need pre-clearance on laws. They did not strike down the right of the Justice Department - or others, for that matter - to challenge discriminatory election laws.
Many officials have been outraged by Holder’s decision, including Rep. Lamar Smith (R - Texas), who said: “The Supreme Court message to the Justice Department was clear — don’t mess with Texas.” Texas Gov. Rick Perry called Holder’s efforts an ”end run around the Supreme Court.”
They are both wrong. What Holder is doing is completely constitutional, as ruled by the Supreme Court.
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