Just over a month after the Supreme Court overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, seven states — five of which were covered under the law — are moving ahead with voting changes that could affect the 2014 Congressional election. The Justice Department has sued Texas to prevent new voting changes and threatened to step in elsewhere. But the battle for the ballot box isn’t going to be waged on the national level, or even the state level, voting-rights advocates say. It’s going to be fought in cities and small towns, at the level of county seats, school boards and city councils. That’s where 85 percent of the DOJ’s Section 5 objections have been under the Voting Rights Act since it was passed. And that’s where legal challenges, the only remaining remedy to fight voter discrimination, are likely to take place, said Dale Ho, head of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “That’s what we’re really worried about,” Ho said, adding: “I need more lawyers.”
In Alabama, a formerly pre-cleared state, a small cadre of attorneys is bracing for a fight. One of them is Tameka Wren, the president of the Magic City Bar Association in Birmingham. The association, named for an old moniker for the city, is predominately for black lawyers and was formed back when African-Americans weren’t welcome in the main bar association.
A young attorney, who sometimes in her work as a public defender represents the occasional Klansman, Wren sat down and read the Shelby briefs earlier this year. “I did not realize the breadth of the Voting Rights Act and how it’s used,” she said. “But I know what we sacrificed as minorities, as African-Americans, when we had no hope, no future, no promise, and I don’t want to go back there.”
After the verdict, Wren and another attorney, Raymond Johnson, got together with voting-rights veterans, judges, civil and political leaders, to talk about how to confront challenges to voting laws. They formed the Voting Rights Education Association, which they hope will act as an early-warning system to track proposed voting changes and train lawyers on how to fight them in court.
Wren is putting together a spreadsheet of the voting laws for Alabama’s several hundred local jurisdictions, including requirements for how changes need to be communicated, for example, whether they have to be posted in the town, or online. She is also looking for advocates in those areas willing to report on any changes.
Ultimately, they hope to partner with organizations across the south and in western states, like Texas, to coordinate a legal response. The attorneys say that while they’re grateful for the Justice Department’s recent intervention in Texas, “the DOJ’s going to have their hands full,” Johnson said. “I don’t think they have the manpower.”