by Suevon Lee, ProPublica
A single provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been playing a key role on the election front this year. Section 5 has blocked photo voter-ID laws, prohibited reduced early-voting periods in parts of Florida and just Tuesday barred new redistricting maps in Texas.
It’s the reason South Carolina is in federal court this week to try to convince a three-judge panel its photo voter-ID law will not disenfranchise minorities. It’s the reason that Texas went to trial on the same issue last month — and on Thursday, lost.
Not surprisingly, then, Section 5 is increasingly the target of attack by those who say it is outdated, discriminatory against Southern states and unconstitutional.
Under the provision, certain states and localities with a history of anti-minority election practices must obtain federal approval or “preclearance” before making changes to voting laws. In present day, that requirement is burdensome, “needlessly aggressive” and based on outdated coverage criteria, two petitions filed in July with the U.S. Supreme Court argue.
Section 5 applies to nine states — Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia and Alaska — and currently to parts of Florida, California, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan and New Hampshire. The original coverage formula looked at whether states imposed unfair devices like literacy tests in November 1964, whether less than 50 percent of the voting-age population was registered to vote as of that date, or if less than 50 percent of eligible voters voted in the November 1964 presidential election. In 1975, the formula expanded to include jurisdictions that provided election materials only in English when members of a language minority made up more than 5 percent of voting-age citizens.
Momentum is building at the highest levels to narrow or even eliminate this provision. In a 2009 majority opinion to a Section 5 challenge from Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Texas, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that preclearance and the coverage formula “raise serious constitutional questions,” though the justices didn’t settle them at the time. In January, in a separate concurrence to the judgment in the Texas redistricting case, Justice Clarence Thomas stated that Section 5 is unconstitutional (for more on how that case reached the Supreme Court, see our previous explainer).
Last week, six states covered under Section 5 filed an amicus brief to the Shelby County petition, citing the time and cost of seeking preclearance and a voting landscape that’s shed its racist past. Several former Justice Department officials, all of whom served in past Republican administrations, cite in another amicus brief the disparate impact the provision has on the states.
So, could this Civil Rights-era provision soon be on its way out the door? As early as 2009, UC-Irvine law professor Rick Hasen laid out a scenario under which that could happen. But the prospects remain murky.