Voting Rights Act
March 6, 2013
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Voting Rights Act: In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the “Voting Rights Act” (S. 1564) to enforce the Fifteenth amendment of the Constitution of the U.S. (Public Law 89-110). The Fifteenth Amendment, which was the third of the Reconstruction Amendments and was ratified on February 3, 1870, granted African American men the right to vote as follows:
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
When enacted, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 included section 5, which read as follows:
Sec. 5. Whenever a State or political subdivision with respect to which the prohibitions set forth in section (4)(a) are in effect shall enact or seek to administer any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1964, such State or subdivision may institute an action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for a declaratory judgment that such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color, and unless and until the court enters such judgment no person shall be denied the right to vote for failure to comply with such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure: Provided, That such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure may be enforced without such proceeding if the qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure has been submitted by the chief legal officer or other appropriate official of such State or subdivision to the Attorney General and the Attorney General has not interposed an objection with sixty days after such submission, except that neither the Attorney General’s failure to object nor a declaratory judgment entered under this section shall bar a subsequent action to enjoin enforcement of such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure. Any action under this section shall be heard and determined by a court of three judges in accordance with the provisions of section 2284 of title 28 of the United States Code and any appeal shall lie to the Supreme Court.
Nine states and specified local governments in seven other states must comply with Section 5. They are required to get permission from Washington before they may change any law dealing with voting. The Voting Rights Act has been an effective civil rights law to bar the worst state and local government offenders of racial discrimination in voting, preventing them from adopting new elections laws by requiring them to first prove that any new elections laws would not discriminate.
The Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality in 1966 and more recently in 2006. However, recent statements by the Supreme Court in the 2009 case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 in Texas v. Holder have indicated that it could strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because “the evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance” under this section. This year, the 48-year old law is facing an important challenge.
Shelby County v. Holder: Since it was enacted in 1965, the entire state of Alabama has been covered by the Voting Rights Act. In 2008, the city of Calera in Shelby County, a part of the City of Birmingham’s city’s metro complex, had redrawn one of its electoral maps which brought in hundreds of white voters and significantly decreased the number of black voters, triggering a veto by the Justice Department, which asserted that the city relied on unreliable demographic data to justify the new map. Shelby County challenged this veto action, asserting that Section 5 must be stricken because it is unconstitutional as it was written.
On February 27, 2013, the Supreme Court heard argument on the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., addressing the question of whether Congress’ decision in 2006 to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act under the pre-existing coverage formula of Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and thus violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the U.S. Constitution.
The Tenth Amendment protects the sovereignty of states by preserving their right of self-government, the Fifteenth Amendment is noted above, and Article IV guarantees each state that it will have the power to govern itself without excessive interference from the federal government. However, the Supreme Court added one more provision to these three constitutional claims raised by Shelby County by including the Fourteenth Amendment to examine whether Congress’ powers to mandate voter equality are broader under the Fourteenth Amendment.
The Court decision is expected likely in late June.