A central provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 may be in peril, judging from tough questioning on Wednesday from the Supreme Court’s more conservative members. Justice Antonin Scalia called the provision, which requires nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal permission before changing voting procedures, a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked a skeptical question about whether people in the South are more racist than those in the North. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asked how much longer Alabama must live “under the trusteeship of the United States government.” The court’s more liberal members, citing data and history, said Congress remained entitled to make the judgment that the provision was still needed in the covered jurisdictions. “It’s an old disease,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said of efforts to thwart minority voting. “It’s gotten a lot better. A lot better. But it’s still there.” Four of the nine-member court’s five more conservative members asked largely skeptical questions about the law. The fifth, Justice Clarence Thomas, did not ask a question, as is typical.
Will the Supreme Court strike down what President Lyndon Johnson called “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom”? That is the question before the justices on Wednesday, when they will hear a challenge to the constitutionality of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Enacted in 1965, it was designed to end, once and for all, the long, ugly history of racial discrimination in voting in America. The law, widely recognized as a remarkable success, was reauthorized in 2006 in a near-unanimous vote in Congress. As Americans have come to recognize, however, the only votes that really matter are those of the justices of the Supreme Court. And there’s every reason to suspect that five justices will vote to strike down one of the law’s most important provisions. That provision is known as “Section 5,” and it requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to obtain the approval of the Department of Justice or a special court in Washington, D.C., before adopting any change in their voting rules. If one of these covered jurisdictions wants to move away from single-member districts to an at-large election, as several tried to do to reduce the voting strength of racial minorities, or change the voting hours, that change has to be “precleared” before going into effect.
Central parts of an election law dating back to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the Voting Rights Act, appeared to be in jeopardy Wednesday after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to them. NBC’s Pete Williams reported after the oral argument, “I think it’s a safe prediction to say that the Voting Rights Act, as it now stands, is not going to survive. The question is: how far will the Supreme Court go in striking parts of it down?” Williams said what seemed to concern a majority of the justices was “the fact that the law is too backward looking.” The justices were weighing an appeal from Shelby County, Ala., asking the court to find that Congress exceeded its power when it renewed the two key sections of the law in 2006. Under Section 5 of the law, nine states, mostly in the South, but also including Alaska and Arizona, as well as dozens of counties, townships, cities, and elected boards in other states, must get permission, or “preclearance,” from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington for any change in voting procedures, no matter how small, that they seek to make.
As the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in a case challenging the Voting Rights Act of 1968, civil rights advocates are rising to support the anti-discriminatory law. But why? This hardly the first time that the 45-year-old law has been challenged. It’s been just four years since the country’s highest court stopped just short of striking down the Voting Rights Act altogether, choosing instead to make a decision on narrow grounds. On Wednesday, the justices will get a second chance in the case of Shelby County v. Holder — Shelby County is in Alabama — which seeks to determine if Congress overstepped its authority when it passed the 25-year-long renewal of the Voting Rights Act passed by Congress is 2006. In other words, the case should decide whether or not the Voting Rights Act is constitutional. This is a big deal for a lot of people.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider whether to strike down a key provision of a federal law designed to protect minority voters. During the one-hour oral argument, the nine justices will hear the claim made by officials from Shelby County, Alabama, that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed. The key issue is whether Congress has the authority under the 15th Amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote, to require some states, mainly in the South, to show that any proposed election-law change would not discriminate against minority voters. Conservative activists and local officials in some jurisdictions covered by the provision have long complained about it, saying that it is an unacceptable infringement on state sovereignty.
National: Voting Rights Act: Is major portion outdated? Supreme Court to hear arguments | CSMonitor.com
It is recognized as the most powerful and effective civil rights law in American history. So why is the US Supreme Court being asked to declare a major portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional? On Wednesday, the high court is set to take up a legal challenge filed on behalf of Alabama’s Shelby County, alleging that Congress overstepped its authority when it voted overwhelmingly in 2006 to reauthorize Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) for 25 years. At issue in the case, Shelby County v. Eric Holder (12-96), is a section of the law that gives the federal government extraordinary power to prevent state and local governments from discriminating against minority voters by undercutting their political clout in elections. In 1965, when the VRA was first enacted, many states, particularly in the Deep South, were actively working to prevent black and other minority voters from effectively exercising their right to vote. They had done it for decades through threats of violence, poll taxes, and literacy tests. Congress outlawed those blatant tactics, but the discrimination continued in more creative and subtle ways.
Conservative justices who hold a slim majority on the Supreme Court expressed grave doubts Wednesday that the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement — remains constitutional nearly a half century later. The justices who could be the swing votes in an eventual ruling suggested that an outdated formula built into the law now discriminates against the South, much as Southern states discriminated against black voters by erecting barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests. “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens in the South are more racist than the citizens in the North?” Chief Justice John Roberts asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who argued that the law should remain intact. Roberts noted that Massachusetts has the worst black turnout in elections when compared with whites — and Mississippi the best. Although the more liberal justices defended Section 5 of the law, which requires all or parts of 16 states to clear any voting changes with the federal government, at times the die appeared cast inside the marble courtroom. That could mean a decision by June rendering that provision unconstitutional or sending it back to Congress.
Editorials: America Is One Step Closer to Neutering the Voting Rights Act | Andrew Cohen/The Atlantic
You could say that the call was made even before the polls closed. It was made with great clarity before the end of the scheduled hour of oral argument at the United States Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holderby the folks at Scotusblog, the most popular and prestigious website covering the Court. It was presented in 140 characters or less to the world in the form of a Tweet: “Update from argument: VRA Sec 5 almost sure to be invalidated 5-4. Congress will have to reconsider the preclearance formula.” There are some instances where oral argument is useless in determining how a case will turn out. This does not figure to be one of those times. There look to be five votes to strike down the section of the law that requires officials in some jurisdictions to prove to the satisfaction of federal officials that their voting laws and redistricting rules do not discriminate against minority voters. We can be reasonably certain about this not just because of the questions and the answers offered up Wednesday but also because of the history of the Roberts Court and the Voting Rights Act. Chief Justice John Roberts, who campaigned against the law 30 years ago as a young Justice Department official, isn’t going to save the statute the way he saved the Affordable Care Act last June. Justice Clarence Thomas declared four years ago that it had to go. Justice Antonin Scalia on Wednesday declared the most successful anti-discrimination law in American history the perpetuation of a “racial entitlement.” Justice Samuel Alito echoed on Wednesday many of the same concerns he expressed during argument four years ago in a Section 5 case out of Texas. That’s four votes. The fifth would be Justice Anthony Kennedy, the least conservative of the five Republican appointees. Lyle Denniston, a reporter who has daily covered the Supreme Court since before the passage of the 1965 law, wrote Wednesday of some wiggle room he perceived in a comment Justice Kennedy made about how the plaintiff in the case — Shelby County, Alabama — may not be in proper position to challenge Section 5 (or the preclearance coverage formula of Section 4) because of its past record of voting discrimination.
Sometimes, in a Supreme Court argument, a single phrase can speak volumes. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the one member of the Court who bore the most watching because the other eight seemed clearly to divide evenly, used the phrase “trusteeship of the United States government” as a shorthand way to describe how he views the regime set up by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 works. Of course, he meant it as a denunciation. If Kennedy believes that there is no way to justify any longer that kind of oversight of nine states that have to do the most to obey the 1965 law, that law may well be doomed. But it also was Kennedy who left the impression that he might be willing to go along with a potential way to short-circuit the case of Shelby County v. Holder, and allow the law to survive for some time more. The argument Wednesday in one of the most important cases of the Court’s current Term — a hearing that ran seventeen minutes longer than the allotted hour — left no doubt that four of the Justices (and maybe Kennedy with them) are just as troubled as they were four years ago when they last lambasted the selective enforcement approach mandated by history’s most successful civil rights law. Equally, there was no doubt that four Justices — including the two newest members — were prepared to let Congress have its way with the twenty-five-year extension of the law.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act remains one of this country’s foremost accomplishments. Constitutional amendments following the Civil War barred states and localities from abridging the right to vote on the basis of race, yet for the better part of a century, white racists managed to stay a step ahead of the federal government’s enforcement of these protections. The Voting Rights Act was designed to stamp out the varied and shifting strategies local officials used to prevent African Americans from voting. On Wednesday the Supreme Court will consider whether the Voting Rights Act has worked so well that its toughest rules have now outlived their time. Provisions of the act require certain states and localities with a history of discrimination to clear any proposed change in voting rules with the federal government. Shelby County, Alabama, claims that immense progress since 1965 in rooting out official discrimination renders pre-clearance an unwarranted burden on those jurisdictions that must comply, unjustifiably subjecting some states to unequal treatment and violating their constitutional prerogative to regulate elections within their borders.
Much has changed in America since the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was first approved, and we can’t blame those living in the 16 states that must get approval from the Justice Department or a federal court in order to revise their election laws for feeling the weight of history. The Deep South of the 21st century is not the same as the days of poll taxes, literacy tests and assassinated civil rights leaders. But how different is it today from seven years ago? That’s when Congress last renewed one of this country’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation — including the section that places this burden of proof on states with long histories of suppressing minority voters. It wasn’t even close, nor was it partisan. The House and Senate voted 390 to 33 and 98 to 0, respectively, to extend the law by another 25 years, the fourth extension since 1965. More than anything else, that fact should weigh heavily as the Supreme Court on Wednesday considers the case brought by Shelby County, Ala., where officials regard the pre-clearance requirement as an unconstitutional burden. Courts have upheld the Voting Rights Act numerous times over the years (including in the Shelby case), so surely such an argument must turn on the claim that the basic patterns of life in places like Alabama have changed completely. Yet couldn’t the Congress of 2006 somehow have picked up on that?
If the Supreme Court strikes down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act this year, it will largely come as the result of events that began in Shelby County, Alabama, where a disputed city council election has thrown into doubt the future of a landmark law that stops state and local governments from making it hard for minorities to vote. Long-time Shelby County resident Frank Ellis is the attorney who brought the suit, which the Supreme Court will hear Wednesday. In his argument:
“The South has changed, it is not the same as it was in 1964…The whole country has changed, we are a dynamic society, not just in Alabama, but everywhere.” Indeed, one need look no further than the results of the most recent national elections for evidence of just how “dynamic” a society this is. For some reason, Chief Justice Roberts decided only a few days after the president’s re-election to revisit an issue he had ducked just three years earlier in a case which bears the imposing title, “Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No.1 vs. Holder.”
The Citizen’s Clean Election Commission would be consolidated with the Arizona Secretary of State’s office and take on added responsibilities for overseeing election law violations and lobbyist reporting under a bill approved by a Senate committee Tuesday. The proposal approved by the Appropriations Committee would allow the voter-created commission to still do its work independently but add some responsibilities and bring operational efficiencies, Secretary of State Ken Bennett said. The bill also would restore a so-called “tax checkoff” included in the law creating the commission that was eliminated by the Legislature last year. The bill would require any extra money the commission has to be turned over to Bennett’s office to help pay for replacing election equipment. The state needs millions of dollars to buy new voting equipment in the coming years.
U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, relying upon her experiences as Michigan secretary of state, is denouncing President Obama’s plan to form a national election commission which will seek solutions to long waits for voters on Election Day. “That’s about the last thing we need is another election commission,” Miller said, asserting that reforms should be left to the states that had voting problems last fall. In his State of the Union address, Obama announced the creation of a commission to set national standards and he pointed to the plight of 102-year-old Desline Victor of Miami who waited six hours to cast her ballot in November. An estimated 201,000 frustrated Floridians left the polls before voting.
Mississippi: Clarksdale Mayor Candidate Found Dead — First Openly Gay Candidate in Mississippi | TPM
A Mississippi mayoral candidate was found dead Wednesday and the case is being investigated as a homicide, authorities said. Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith said the body of 34-year-old Marco McMillian was found on the Mississippi River levee Wednesday at about 10 a.m. The 34-year-old McMillian was running for mayor of Clarksdale, a Blues hub where actor and Mississippi native Morgan Freeman co-owns a music club with Howard Stovall, a Memphis entertainment executive, and Bill Luckett, who also is running for mayor. Meredith said the body was found between Sherard and Rena Lara and was sent to Jackson for an autopsy. He declined to provide further details or speculate on the cause of death. The sheriff’s office said Wednesday in a news release on its Facebook page that a person of interest was in custody, but had not been formally charged.
Mississippi: Senate approves $695K for secretary of state to defend voter ID plan | The Clarion-Ledger
The Mississippi Senate on Tuesday approved $695,000 for the secretary of state to defend a proposed voter identification law, and the budget bill moves on to the House for more work. The secretary of state’s overall $13 million budget for fiscal 2014 was rejected last week, but many senators were out of the chamber at the time. During a second vote Tuesday with better attendance, Senate Bill 2901 passed. Mississippi needs federal approval for any changes to election laws, to ensure that the changes don’t dilute minority voting strength. If the Justice Department rejects the voter ID proposal, as many expect, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann could ask federal judges to approve it.
North Dakota: Grand Forks activist loses appeal against state election official | Grand Forks Herald
A Grand Forks political activist who accused the secretary of state of discriminating against third-party candidates has lost his appeal before the state Supreme Court. Roland Riemers, a Libertarian who ran for governor last fall, lost his case in Grand Forks County district court in September. The state’s high court affirmed that ruling in an opinion released Tuesday. The case is Roland Riemers v. Alvin Jaeger, the secretary of state. Essentially, Riemers said the state prevented him from appearing on the November ballot as a Libertarian — he ran as an independent — because of a paperwork error, but did not penalize Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates for a different paperwork error. He wanted their names off the ballot, too.
A bill that would eliminate absentee voting on Election Day is sailing through the Legislature. Currently, walk-up absentee voting is allowed in-person at the courthouse through 3 p.m. on Election Day. The proposal that the House of Representatives is expected to approve today would cut off that type of absentee voting at 5 p.m. on the day before the election. It was approved on a 12-0 vote Tuesday by the House Local Government committee. The Senate previously approved the legislation on a 32-1 vote.
Italian comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, whose Five-Star Movement (M5S) defied expectations to come third in last weekend’s elections, has ruled out a coalition with the centre-left. Pier Luigi Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD) won a majority in the Chamber of Deputies but fell short in the Senate. Mr Grillo told the BBC he expected Mr Bersani to agree a deal with Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PdL). The inconclusive polls have pushed up borrowing costs for the government. On Wednesday, the Italian treasury sold 4bn euros (£3.45bn) of new 10-year government bonds on the financial markets at a yield of 4.83%, up from 4.17% at its last sale in January, and 2.5bn euros of new five-year bonds at a yield of 3.59%, up from 2.94%.
Editorials: Italy’s election leaves country — and eurozone — on financial high-wire | Louise Cooper/CNN
Brilliant minds across the financial world are still trying to work out the implications of the Italian election result. For the time being, the best answer is that it is probably too soon to tell. After Tuesday’s falls, a little stability has returned to markets, possibly because everyone is still trying to work out what to think. Credit ratings agency Moody’s has warned the election result is negative for Italy — and also negative for other indebted eurozone states. It fears political uncertainty will continue and warns of a “deterioration in the country’s economic prospects or difficulties in implementing reform,” the agency said. For the rest of the eurozone, the result risks “reigniting the euro debt crisis.” Madrid must be looking to Italy with trepidation. If investors decide that Italy is looking risky again and back off from buying its debt, then Spain will be drawn into the firing line too.
Voter intimidation, expulsion threats and a rise in purchases of machetes point to violence at Kenya’s March 4 national election, a coalition of 30 Kenyan civic groups said on Wednesday. The government has promised harsh penalties for those caught inciting ethnic violence as it is anxious to avoid post-election bloodshed like that after the last vote in 2007 that led to indictments by the International Criminal Court. More than 1,200 people were killed and more than 350,000 displaced from their homes when disputes over the results of the presidential vote five years ago broke out, triggering violence.
Police in Zimbabwe have announced a ban on the possession of shortwave radios, saying they are being used to communicate hate speech ahead of next month’s constitutional referendum and elections set to be held in July. Wind-up, solar-powered radios sets have been distributed by NGOs to rural communities, where villagers have established listening clubs to tune in to popular independent stations such as Radio Voice of the People, Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa. The broadcasts are produced by exiled Zimbabwean journalists based in Europe and the US. Zimbabwe has four state-controlled radio stations with a history of supporting President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. Two recently established independent stations are also perceived to be pro-Zanu-PF. There is demand among listeners, especially those supportive of the rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), for other viewpoints.