Opinion

The Great Debate

The strong case for keeping Section 5

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

There are deep ironies in the current case against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Before a 5-4 Republican majority of the Supreme Court opens the door to stronger voter suppression laws by overturning it in Shelby County v. Holder, the justices ‑ and the informed public ‑ should consider how effective Section 5 has been. Highly unusual political conditions made the act’s passage and renewals possible, and there would be almost insuperable difficulty in replacing it now that those conditions have changed.

Since 2009, I have been compiling a comprehensive list of voting rights incidents. (I have also served as an expert witness in such voting rights cases as those challenging the 2011 Texas redistricting laws.) The list now has 4,141 incidents: legal cases brought under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act; legal cases brought under Section 5 of the act; objections by the Justice Department under Section 5 and “more information requests” issued by the department as part of the Section 5 process, if they resulted in pro-minority changes in election laws; and 14th Amendment cases.

Unpublished, as well as published, cases are included in the statistics below only if they resulted in changes in the election laws that helped minorities. Some are recorded in printed opinions, but many resulted in informal or court-approved settlements. In other instances, merely filing a lawsuit led to the changes in election laws that minority plaintiffs sought. This is a far larger number of incidents than in any database referred to in the Shelby County briefs.

What do these numbers reveal about the central issue that the Supreme Court asked the parties in Shelby County to address: the adequacy of the Section 5 coverage scheme. Section 5 mandates that certain states, counties or townships are barred from changing election laws without the approval of the Justice Department or the District Court of the District of Columbia.

What of congressional power over voting?

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

If the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, the focus will turn to Congress and the question of what legislation it should enact in place of Section 5. An equally compelling question is what will happen to the scope of congressional authority over elections.

In City of Boerne v. Flores (1997), the court identified the Voting Rights Act as the ideal piece of remedial legislation, perfectly tailored to address the harm of voting discrimination and therefore an “appropriate” use of congressional authority. The court made this determination without discussing the combined authority of Congress under the 14th and 15th Amendments to regulate state and federal elections. The decision focused only on authority granted under the 14th Amendment.

Watch out in the covered jurisdictions

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

If the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5, Congress is unlikely to pass any sort of “New Voting Rights Act.” So when thinking about what happens next, we need to focus on what voting changes the jurisdictions now subject to oversight might enact that would violate Section 5’s principal aim of preserving minority voting strength. In doing so, there are two dichotomies to consider: one between state legislatures and local governments, the other between voting changes related to ballot access, such as voter registration, and those related to vote dilution, such as redistricting.

When it comes to state governments and vote dilution, states seem unlikely to dismantle districts that give minority voters clout — the “safe” districts that often have a majority of minority population. One reason it’s unlikely is that most of the states under Section 5 oversight are controlled by Republicans, and Republicans often perceive safe minority districts as politically favorable because they pack reliable Democratic voters together. That’s not to say all states will preserve all such districts—there will undoubtedly be outliers. But massive retrogression of minority voting strength on the statewide level seems unlikely.

A signal it’s time to change the court

If the Supreme Court strikes Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, what next? It’s a depressing question, with a depressing answer. That’s because no practical substitute solves the problem that Section 5 solves.

Section 5 is special medicine for broken democracies. It demands that the federal government sign off on election changes, in areas where less than half the eligible population was able to vote in 1964, 1968 or 1972. Majority rule is grade-school civics. But in these jurisdictions, a majority of the electors could not cast a valid ballot. That is broken democracy.

In these areas, democracy was often broken by design ‑ crafty tactics to lock out the most vulnerable and shifting representational schemes to dilute the influence of the few who were able to sneak through.

Focus on new legislative approach

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

If the Supreme Court invalidates Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, its defenders may be tempted to tinker at the margins and reconfigure it in a way that could comply with the court’s decision. Given Section 5’s symbolic status and historical importance, some will likely feel a strong pull to “save” it by staying within the essential framework of the current Section 5, while updating various details. But stepping outside the model of Section 5 and embracing a different legislative approach for national voting-rights legislation might be far more effective.

There are now two models for national voting legislation. Section 5 reflects the first template: the race-based, Civil Rights model for protecting the right to vote. This was born out of an earlier era’s historic circumstances, but also reflects the political and constitutional constraints of that era. Enormously effective and easily justified in its early years, Section 5 – and the Civil Rights model it reflects – has also become increasingly limited in its capacity to address many of today’s voting problems.

Delegate the oversight formula

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

If the Supreme Court strikes the pre-clearance provisions (Section 5) of the Voting Rights Act, it will most likely do so because the statute’s “coverage formula” is untethered from evidence of current discrimination against racial minorities.

The oversight formula determines which states must receive the federal government’s blessing before making any changes to their election laws. It is based on decades-old evidence of discrimination. When Congress in 2006 extended the pre-clearance provisions for another 25 years, legal scholars warned that the extension would be constitutionally vulnerable ‑ unless Congress updated the formula. But politically this was too hot to handle.

The next Voting Rights Act

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

Richard Hasen introduces this symposium by asserting the “smart money is on the [U.S. Supreme] court striking down” Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But I disagree with his framing. The next Voting Rights Act needs both Section 5 and additional voting rights protections.

Unfortunately, Hasen is helping opponents of Section 5. He gives justices allowance to ignore facts and law supporting Section 5, and instead perhaps think: Scholars anticipate our court will invalidate Section 5, so we can invalidate it without seeming too extreme or too political.

Why Section 5 survives

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

“The smart money is on the court striking down [Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act] as an improper exercise of congressional power,” Rick Hasen has warned in his introduction to this forum. That bet is a poor one.

The “experts” may well be proven wrong ‑ as they were in 2009 when the Supreme Court found no reason to rush into a constitutional judgment on the constitutionality of pre-clearance. “Our usual practice,” Chief Justice John Roberts said then, “is to avoid the unnecessary resolution of constitutional questions.” And that is just what the court did.

If the court strikes Section 5 of Voting Rights Act

This is part of the Reuters series on the future of the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5, which the Supreme Court may strike down this year. You can read other pieces in the series here.

We celebrated Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday last week in the shadow of a fight over the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, raising the question whether Section 5 of the act, which requires that states and localities with a history of racial discrimination in voting get permission from the federal government before making any changes in election procedures, is now unconstitutional. The smart money is on the court striking down the law as an improper exercise of congressional power, although Justice Anthony Kennedy or another justice could still surprise.

If the court strikes Section 5, the big question is: What comes next? Reuters has invited a number of leading academics, who focus on voting rights and election law, to contribute to a forum on this question. In this introductory piece, I sketch out what may happen and what’s at stake.

GOP v. Voting Rights Act

The Republican Party is in danger of reaping what it has sown.

Much has been written about the GOP’s problem with minority voters.  Quite simply, the party has managed to alienate every nonwhite constituency in the nation.

This is not an accidental or sudden phenomenon. Ever since Republicans chose almost 50 years ago to pursue a Southern strategy, to embrace and promote white voters’ opposition to civil rights, the party has been on a path toward self-segregation.

Successive Republican administrations have pursued agendas that included retreating on civil rights enforcement and opposing government programs that increase minority opportunity. That steady progression culminated in Mitt Romney’s disastrous showing among African-American, Latino and Asian voters.

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