On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, the fifth time the Voting Rights Act’s Section 5 has been challenged in the high court since it was passed in 1965. Section 5 requires nine states and portions of six others with a history of racial discrimination to have changes to election law “pre-cleared” by the government before going into effect. Every lower court has upheld the provision as constitutional, and Congress reauthorized it four times—always with overwhelming bipartisan support.
It is hard to overstate the importance of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the heart of the law that ended decades of disenfranchisement in former Confederate states is Section 5, the "preclearance" provision. Section 5 requires jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to get prior federal approval for any changes to state voting laws. The necessity of this provision was clear: without it, states had been able to nullify the commands of the 15th Amendment by passing measures that were formally race-neutral but were discriminatory in practice.
I mentioned in my previous post that the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments on the Voting Rights Act this week. At issue is Section 5 of the law, which requires states and localities with histories of voter disenfranchisement to pre-approve any changes that effect voting with the federal government. The provision effects nine states—mostly in the South—and most areas that submit for pre-clearance are approved—it takes serious problems for the Justice Department to put changes on hold.
In a unanimous decision on Thursday, a panel of three federal judges knocked down the Texas voter-ID law, which would have required voters to show a form of government-issued photo identification. The state will undoubtedly appeal the decision, but the news is yet another blow to the law, which the Justice Department already determined would disproportionately affect nonwhite voters. The Department of Justice estimated that between 600,000 and 800,000 registered voters would be affected. Those with Hispanic surnames were far more likely than whites to not have the requisite identification.
Today is the 47th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 by a bipartisan (if sectional) majority of Congress, and signed by President Lyndon Johnson. With the fight over who deserves to vote having been reignited by the partisan push for voter identification, and with conservatives mounting legal attacks on key provisions of the Act, it’s worth noting the degree to which the VRA was a milestone for democracy in this country.
"I voted" picture: (Flickr/ Vox Efx) Liberty Bell photograph: (Flickr/dcwriterdawn)
We get it. Real-life court dramas are not as exciting as Judge Judy (and definitely not as exciting as Judge Joe Brown). So we totally don't judge you for not knowing why the hell Pennsylvania's voter-ID law is suddenly in court.
Of course, you thought you'd covered your bases when you read our early explanation of voter-ID laws. (If you didn't, well, you only need to be a little embarrassed.) You know there's basically no evidence of in-person voter fraud where one person impersonates another—the only type of fraud voter ID guards against. You know that the big fights were in Texas and South Carolina. So why is everyone so worked up about some court case in Harrisburg?
Well let us be quick and leave you plenty of time for Court TV.
So a bunch of states have voter-ID laws—what's the big deal about Pennsylvania?
Well, not shockingly in a presidential election year, a lot of it boils down to politics. Pennsylvania is a swing state in a close election, so every vote each side can pull counts big. Most people believe voter-ID laws help Republicans win elections, because poor and nonwhite voters tend to vote Democratic and also tend to be the populations less likely to have the necessary ID. In case there was any doubt about those intentions, the state House majority leader told an audience that passing voter ID was "going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania." (He evidently didn't get the whole memo about pretending we need this to combat nonexistent voter fraud.)
Yesterday, Eric Holder opened a new front in his fight to preserve voting rights, as the Department of Justice announced that it would launch an investigation into Pennsylvania's voter ID law. The attorney general has been an outspoken critic of the strict new laws that require voters to show government-issued photo identification, calling them the equivalent of a modern-day "poll tax." The DOJ has blocked implementation of voter ID in Texas and South Carolina—states that, because of their histories of voter suppression, are listed in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and therefore must get preclearance from the DOJ before they can change their election laws.
Texas doesn't have an air-tight case when it comes to the stringent voter-ID law that's currently having its week in court. Even Fox commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano said he expects the state to lose. And according to Politico, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has promised to show not only that the voter-ID law will have a discriminatory effect but that such an effect was intentional.
With a tangle of lawsuits and legal complexities, it's easy to get lost in the minutiae of Florida's voter-purge debacle. Last week, as a U.S. District Court ruled on one of the disputes between the Department of Justice and the state of Florida, most of the media discussion focused on who'd won and who'd lost in the rather nuanced court opinion. More legal action comes next week, and the discussion will likely be similar.
Last week Scott offered a great defense of the Voting Rights Act, arguing that Section Five—a clause that requires southern states to receive preclearance before changing any voting procedures—is a necessary correction to the limits of the Fifteenth Amendment. That provision was recently overturned by the D.C. Circuit, setting up a hearing in the Supreme Court that could possibly strike down the landmark civil rights legislation. Given the recent conservative tilt of the Supreme Court, some legal experts are predicting that the circuit court's decision will be upheld, with the majority arguing that the act was crafted during circumstances no longer relevant to the political climate.
Had enough of Republican presidential candidates spinning vague ideas for America’s future? In the Florida state house, Republican legislators are being far more concrete with their plans. Rather than focusing on laws to support working families and small business growth, Florida Republicans are hell-bent on protecting big businesses and discouraging participation in our democracy.
Texas Republicans have been trying for years to pass a law that would require state voters to show identification before hitting the polls—and state Democrats have been equally determined to stop such a measure. The Rs came close in 2009, but the House Democrats, only two seats away from a majority, blew up the legislative session rather than see the measure pass. By 2011, however, fresh from Tea Party victories, the GOP had overwhelming majorities in both Houses.
You might think that since the Supreme Court made a decision today regarding the ongoing Texas redistricting saga, that, well, something had been decided. But let's just be clear on what is still up in the air:
1. Whether the maps are discriminatory based on the Voting Rights Act
2. The date of the primary, currently scheduled for April 3 with almost no one believing that's a realistic date