Opinion

The Great Debate

Voting Rights: Scalia v. minority protection

It’s rare to reach a point in our national sense of humor that a sitting Supreme Court justice emerges as the butt of popular jokes for comments he made during an oral argument. That’s what happened last week, however, after Justice Antonin Scalia asked lawyers defending Congress’s extension of Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act whether maintaining the pre-clearance formula for nine “covered” states, which are subject to federal oversight, was really just a “racial entitlement” program and not a constitutional necessity.

The media filled with guffaws about the justice’s audacity. Cartoonists ridiculed his racial insensitivity. MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow, dismissing Scalia’s words as mere willful provocation, called him a “troll.”

We’d be wise to watch the name-calling. Insulting as Scalia’s words sound, there’s more to the justice’s comments than political incorrectness. For those who care about more than full and fair voting rights for minorities, responding to the perceived slight with more name-calling misses the point. Scalia was talking about far more than the Voting Rights Act. He was talking about whether the Constitution affords minorities any real protection for a range of discrimination anymore.

Take Shelby County v. Holder, argued February 27 before the Supreme Court: Is the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act still constitutional — though Congress found extensive examples of racial discrimination in voting as recently as 2006? One might answer yes, because Congress has the authority to do that under our system. The 2006 extension came after Congress compiled a voluminous record of problems and was passed overwhelmingly by the House and — for the first time — unanimously in the Senate.

Beyond this question of congressional power, however, is a question of belief. If you answer yes, it is because you probably hold three beliefs. First, you believe that race and color are still significant risk factors in the exercise of some constitutional rights — like voting. Second, you believe there’s reliable evidence to support the first belief. And third, you think that laws as written can fix it.

Who controls Voting Rights?

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.

On Wednesday the Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, challenging the constitutionality of a key part of the Voting Rights Act. But in the wide public debate about this case, we are getting to the point where — as election law scholar Pam Karlan has noted — everything has been said, but not necessarily by everybody.

In addition to this Reuters symposium on “If the Court Strikes Down Section 5,” other symposia, commentaries and op-eds have considered whether the act still serves a vital purpose; whether the court should strike it down; and what should replace it if the court rules that Congress went too far in requiring certain states to continue to get federal permission when making changes in any voting rules until 2031.

Making sure race is considered

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 Voting Rights Act has worked for almost 50 years to remove racial discrimination from the electoral process and prevent its return. Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear oral argument on the constitutionality of Section 5, one of the act’s most powerful provisions. Section 5’s work is done, this argument goes, and the provision has outlived its usefulness.

Yet some of Section 5’s most important work lies beyond its technical application. Section 5 requires that jurisdictions with a documented history of racial discrimination in voting seek federal approval for any voting changes. The aim is to ensure that new voting laws will not “retrogress” — or harm — minority voting rights. It subtly and constructively inserts race into electoral decision-making — creating a race consciousness among decision-makers that can often preempt discrimination. This deterrent effect, and its impact on the discourse of race in elections, may be Section 5’s most important — and unfinished — work.

The partisan politics of election laws

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.

Many commentators assume that the conservative Supreme Court justices will strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Like Abigail Thernstrom, however, we are not so sure. Congress clearly has the authority to continue to maintain Section 5. If the court does strike it down, though, it will give Congress an opportunity to update the act for the 21st century.

In 2012, state legislatures passed many partisan initiatives designed to constrain the right to vote ‑ ranging from efforts to end same-day registration to adding voter identification laws. In Virginia, state senators used one colleague’s absence to pass a new, arguably discriminatory redistricting plan. In Indiana and North Carolina, new proposals would make it harder for some students to vote. Some states are considering tinkering with the way they choose electors to the Electoral College.

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.

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.

  •