Two weeks ago, the nation’s highest court heard arguments against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act; an issue that is both complicated and sensitive and a ruling that thankfully it’s not my job to decide. But, while everyone is talking about the Sequester, I want to take this opportunity to draw your attention to such a noteworthy court case, the impacts it may have on 16 states, and the political implications that could follow.
In Shelby County v. Holder, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) is being challenged under the claim that it poses an unconstitutional burden on specific states. Section 5 of the VRA requires nine states and cities or counties in seven additional states to “pre-clear” (or get permission) with the Department of Justice or a panel of three federal judges in D.C. before making any changes to their voting process: redistricting, voter ID laws, special election dates, etc. This was put into place in 1965 in order to protect any voters from discrimination based on racial or ethnic background. The Supreme Court upheld the law four years ago but essentially told Congress that it needed to review the legislation and determine if the formula for which states need to be covered, should be updated – the formula is thirty-five years old. Congress, being completely useless these days in passing meaningful legislation, did not heed the Court’s suggestion, and as a result, Section 5 of the law is now being challenged. I am no legal expert and could not even begin to weigh in on what the ruling will be or the merits of the challenge, but I do find the potential political implications of the outcome extremely important to consider.
The outcome of this challenge is expected to be decided this June. Of the 16 states affected, the nine states that are entirely covered include: Alaska, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. The seven states that are marginally covered via counties/townships are: Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, South Dakota, North Carolina, Florida and California. Several of these states have had little issue with the pre-clearance process and have been able to make the case that they should be exempt from the process, and therefore have been able to “bail-out”. The Department of Justice has tracked the number of objections it has issued to new or revised voting laws in all of the above states since the VRA was signed into law. The number of objections from bailed out states like New Mexico and Alaska totals one each. The majority of southern states, however, have had a greater challenge getting pre-clearance for legal changes.
Number of objections per state and most recent rejection date:
SC: 122 (2011) LA: 146 (2011) MS: 173 (2012) GA: 178 (2012) TX: 209 (2012)
Last cycle, voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina were objected by the Department of Justice, and redistricting laws for districts at all levels of government were objected in North Carolina, Texas, Georgia and Mississippi. This goes to show that in some states the preclearance process is still an active part of the voting law process.
So how has this law affected politics over the past four decades? Section 5 has ensured that congressional districts are drawn in a way that protects racial minority voters, in many states creating what are often referred to as “majority-minority” districts. According to Census analysis done by the Cook Political Report, the 113th Congress currently has 111 non-white majority or majority-minority districts. Democrats represent 87.4% of those districts, while Republicans represent 67.9% of majority white districts. If you take a step further at where those districts are located, you will find the majority of them fall within jurisdictions of Section 5 of the VRA. Of the nine states in which the entire state must be pre-cleared, 28 majority-minority districts are located within them – 15 of which are in Texas, 5 in Georgia, 2 in Virginia and Arizona, and 1 in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina. And if you examine the seven states which are partially covered, 13 majority-minority districts are touched by those counties and townships.
If Section 5 is upheld, then it will only be a matter of time before it is challenged again and ultimately changed or ruled unconstitutional. For now, we know that Section 5 has protected many disenfranchised voters in a number of states over the last half-century. However, we also know that districts drawn to protect those voters have now created congressional districts that elect a racially divided Congress. The issue is a double edged sword and I do not envy the decision the Court has to make.
To see two different arguments for and against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, see George Will’s article against here, or Donna Brazile’s article for here.