It might seem a stretch for Texas’ top elected officials to be intensely interested in such minutiae as the planning commission’s jurisdiction and voting boundaries in Shelby County, population almost 200,000, in the middle of Alabama. But a lawsuit that Shelby County has taken to the U.S. Supreme Court could determine Texas’ flexibility under the federal Voting Rights Act. And Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott is aggressively cheering on Shelby County’s claim that a key part of the 1965 law is an unconstitutional imposition on states’ sovereignty.
Should the justices buy into that argument, it would undercut a provision that Congress reauthorized just six years ago and then-President George W. Bush signed off on. In other words, it would mean that states used the federal courts to sweep away the work of the nation’s elected lawmakers.
The balance of governmental power over voting rights is only one reason why the case of Shelby County v. Holder is significant.
Another is the case’s potential to shift the balance of political power. The Voting Rights Act prohibits voting changes that reduce the electoral strength of racial, ethnic and language minorities. But altering the law could affect the ability of political parties to manipulate voting boundaries to their advantage.
When voting is racially polarized, political line-drawing can have discriminatory results even when the stated motive is merely to disarm the opposing party.
Texas cares quite keenly about the Shelby County case because it aims at Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. That provision requires only a small number of states and counties to seek approval of the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court before putting any voting changes into effect.