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Supreme Court Throws Out Voting Rights Act Preclearance Formula

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


The U. S. Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out a half-century-old formula for federal intervention in Georgia and other states to protect racial minorities at the ballot box but did not dismiss “pre-clearance” altogether, in a landmark civil rights case that will reverberate throughout the South.

The ruling means that for at least the immediate future Georgia is removed from the yoke of required federal supervision of its election law changes.

The 5-4 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts said Congress could come up with a new formula to determine how the federal government can approve voting law changes, but the current regime is “unconstitutional in light of current conditions.”

Since 1965 the Voting Rights Act has been a driving force behind expanding the franchise for racial minorities, but many have argued that requiring the Department of Justice to bless any voting changes in certain areas is outdated.

The challenge was filed by Shelby County, Alabama, outside Birmingham. The Section 4 formula tossed out by the court covers all of Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Virginia, Texas, Arizona and Alaska, and parts of seven other states with a history of overt discrimination in voting practices. These jurisdictions have long complained that submitting any voting changes to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance is burdensome.

Atlanta voting rights attorney Bryan Tyson said he expects the Justice Department to issue guidance on what will happen to pending cases in the next week. But he thinks Fulton County’s pending redistricting plan will take effect immediately without federal review.

“I think the legal effect is the Department of Justice has no basis to stop a law from going into effect,” Tyson said.

Tyson said the Supreme Court made the right decision in the Voting Rights Act case. He said there may still be circumstances in which federal authorization for voting changes is needed. But he said Congress should devise modern criteria to address modern problems.

“You can’t continue to rely on nearly 50-year-old information to justify current intrusions” into local authority, Tyson said.

In theory Congress could approve new criteria to determine which state and local governments must seek federal review of election changes in the future. But in practice, Tyson doesn’t expect it to happen soon, if ever. He said senators and representatives from states currently not covered by the Voting Rights Act will not be eager to embrace criteria that could subject them to federal oversight.

Backers of the Section 5 pre-clearance requirement say the era of literacy tests might be over, but there are still more subtle threats to minority voting strength. Twelve times since 2000 the Department of Justice has blocked voting changes in Georgia, such as in cases where county school board redistricting plans diluted black voting strength.

Most recently, the Department of Justice blocked a state law that would have moved municipal elections in consolidated Augusta-Richmond County from November to July, when minority turnout has historically been far lower.

Atlanta Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a major figure in the civil rights movement who attended President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act, recalled a recent case in Randolph County when the first black man ever elected to the school board was drawn out of his district.

“I disagree with the court that the history of discrimination is somehow irrelevant today,” Lewis said. “The record clearly demonstrates numerous attempts to impede voting rights still exist, and it does not matter that those attempts are not as ‘pervasive, widespread or rampant’ as they were in 1965. One instance of discrimination is too much in a democracy.”

Ahead of the 2012 elections, DOJ blocked strict voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas. Jurisdictions can get out of Section 5 requirements if they go 10 years without a federal intervention. Sandy Springs used this “bailout” provision in 2010.

Section 2 of the law, which remains intact as it was not challenged in the Court, allows legal challenges to discriminatory voting laws nationwide.

The Voting Rights ACt has been reauthorized several times by Congress, most recently in 2006 to overwhelming margins. Congress compiled an extensive record to support keeping the pre-clearance requirement, but Roberts wrote, “Congress did not use that record to fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

While Congress compiled an array of discriminatory practices, mostly related to the dilution of minority voting strength, Roberts wrote those abuses had nothing to do with the blatant racism that necessitated the 1965 formula.

Edited by Dirtybirdn@tion
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