National: Obama calms fears over Supreme Court action on voting rights | The Hill

Speaking Thursday to “The Black Eagle” radio show on SiriusXM, Obama said listeners shouldn’t worry too much that discrimination against minority voters will increase. The Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments about Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act next week. “I know in the past some folks have worried that if the Supreme Court strikes down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, they’re going to lose their right to vote. That’s not the case,” Obama said on the radio show. “People will still have the same rights not to be discriminated against when it comes to voting, you just won’t have this mechanism, this tool, that allows you to kind of stay ahead of certain practices,” Obama said. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires municipalities with a history of disenfranchisement efforts to pre-clear changes to voting practices with the Justice Department or a federal court. The provision was designed to prevent states from instituting poll taxes, literary tests, or other efforts to keep minority voters from the polls that might later be ruled unconstitutional from doing so before an election.

National: Are some civil rights era protections still relevant? Supreme Court will decide | McClatchy

The Justice Department stayed silent when Indiana and Washington state strengthened their voter identification rules. But when Georgia and Texas lawmakers wanted to do the same, they needed federal approval. Now, this different treatment for different states will face a make-or-break test at the Supreme Court. In a potentially landmark case, justices on Wednesday will consider whether it’s time to dismantle a key plank of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act. “This case presents questions that cut to the very core of our democracy,” said Caroline Frederickson, president of the liberal-leaning American Constitution Society. Passed when state-sanctioned racism was at its most insidious, the Voting Rights Act contains multiple elements designed to root out discriminatory practices. The entire law, originally spanning 19 sections, is not at risk of repeal in the case being heard Wednesday. Instead, the case arising out of Shelby County, Ala., centers primarily on two muscular sections that happen to have the biggest reach, and that the county is challenging.

National: Internet Voting—Not Ready for Prime Time? | The Canvass

We transmit money, legal documents, medical reports and other sensitive information via the Internet. Shouldn’t we be able to vote over the Internet, too? “No,” say some observers. “Right now, there is no way to meaningfully secure an election by Internet voting, and we’d be inviting serious potential for fraud on a scale that’s never been experienced in election administration before,” says Doug Kelleher, co-chair of New York’s State Board of Elections. “Until methods can be designed to secure the election so that you know that every vote is being counted the way the voter cast it, I am opposed to Internet voting.” “Yes,” say others—including a group of seventeen computer scientists who signed on to a National Defense Committee statement in January, supporting more research on Internet voting specifically for military voters. “The only foreseeable option to allow military members to achieve first class voter status is through remote electronic voting that provides for electronic delivery of military members’ voted ballots,” says the statement. Still others might say “it depends on what you mean by ‘Internet voting.’” That term can be shorthand for at least three options, and we’ll look at each of them separately—and whether experts give them a green, yellow or red light (at least for now).

National: Advocates Warn Of Dire Consequences If Voting Rights Act Loses In Supreme Court | TPM

Supporters of the Voting Rights Act are painting a bleak picture of what it would mean for the rights of minority voters if the Supreme Court were to strike down the landmark 1965 law’s Section 5, which requires state and local governments with a history of disenfranchising minority voters (i.e. mostly in the south) to receive preclearance from the Justice Department or federal court before changing laws that affect voting. “Broadly speaking, if we didn’t have Section 5 we would find that minority voters are in many places around the covered jurisdictions will have their ability to equally participate in the political process severely compromised,” Julie Fernandes, a civil rights activist and former deputy assistant attorney general at the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said this week. “We’ll see a lot more of the diluting tactics that we used to have.” The Supreme Court hears oral arguments Wednesday in Shelby County v. Holder, the most serious challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Right Acts in the nearly 50 years since its enactment. The liberal-leaning Center For America Progress held a briefing with reporters in advance of the Supreme Court hearing where experts, including Fernandes, made the case for the validity and necessity of Section 5. Nervous that their side will face five very skeptical justices at oral arguments, they described the part of the law as critical to protecting minority voters’ rights.

National: Voting Rights Act In The Supreme Court’s Crosshairs | TPM

When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments next week about the constitutionality of a key element of the Voting Rights Act, the Obama administration and other proponents of the law will be facing five very skeptical justices. Shelby County v. Holder is the latest in a string of landmark cases that will shape the legacy of the Roberts Court. Proponents of the law are extremely nervous, and privately acknowledge that they face a steep uphill climb in winning over a majority of the justices. At issue is the validity of Section 5 of the landmark 1965 law designed to quash voter disenfranchisement efforts such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Section 5 requires states and municipalities with a history of racial discrimination (read: mostly in the south) to seek preclearance from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes to their voting laws. The law was upheld in 1966 by a Supreme Court that deemed it valid to correct the “insidious and pervasive evil” of racism. The law was most recently reauthorized in 2006 by a nearly unanimous Congress, with Section 5 intact.

National: Will Supreme Court End Federal Limits on Campaign Donations? | The Daily Beast

It’s said that villagers in remote parts of China take stones from dilapidated sections of the Great Wall to build their homes. From the villagers’ perspective, at least the stones are being put to good use, given that the wall long ago ceased being effective at keeping out invaders. Not much more useful, these days, is the edifice Congress built after the Watergate scandal to limit the influence of money in elections. Our current campaign finance regime, after years of Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United, which freed up corporations and unions to spend unlimited sums and gave rise to super PACs, is remarkable mainly for how little spending it stops. In January, the Federal Election Commission estimated that $7 billion was spent by candidates, parties, and outside groups in the 2012 elections. That’s an order of magnitude more than what was believed to be spent in the 1972 elections, which originally inspired Congress to enact systemic campaign finance laws. And on Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that offers the justices another chance to haul off with a few more stones. The case has the official name of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission but some people are already referring to it as “Citizens United II.” The issue is the constitutionality of federal law that caps the total amount of money individuals may contribute to candidates, parties, and certain political committees over a two-year period. Shaun McCutcheon, an active political contributor to the GOP and its candidates, challenged the caps, which are currently set at $117,000, as a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

National: Supreme Court to weigh whether Voting Rights Act has run its course | USAToday

The murders of three young civil rights workers bent on registering black voters during 1964’s “Freedom Summer” still haunts this tiny town in central Mississippi. Jewel Rush McDonald shudders at the thought of the beatings her mother and brother endured at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan five days before the murders. Stanley Dearman bemoans the four decades it took to get even one manslaughter conviction, and only after he badgered state officials in his weekly newspaper. James Young recalls the tension of being the only black pupil in his elementary school class at the time of the murders, when poll taxes and literacy tests helped keep 95% of eligible blacks in Mississippi from voting. After dark in those days, he says, “we were told to be in the house.” But “things have changed in the South,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts said June 22, 2009, almost 45 years to the day since the murders. It was one line in the court’s most recent decision on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and though it kept the law largely intact, Roberts warned the act’s days might be numbered.

National: Supreme Court will hear appeal of campaign donation limits |

Three years after the landmark Citizens United decision that dramatically changed campaign finance laws, the Supreme Court announced Tuesday it will take up another campaign finance case challenging how much donors can give to campaigns and committees. The court will hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which deals with the constitutionality of aggregate contribution limits, in October. Shaun McCutcheon, an Alabama resident, contributed a total of $33,088 to 16 different candidates during the 2012 election cycle and thousands more to party committees. He wanted his contributions for the cycle to total $75,000 to party committees and $54,400 to candidates but was barred from giving at that level by federal aggregate limits. The Republican National Committee and McCutcheon challenged the FEC’s contribution limits under the First Amendment, saying the $46,200 aggregate limit for candidates and $70,800 limit for committees was “unsupported by any cognizable government interest … at any level of review.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the limits.

National: Supreme Court Takes Campaign Finance Case, Will Rule On Contribution Limits | Huffington Post

The Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it will hear a case challenging the per-biennial cycle limit on campaign contributions from individuals. The case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, argues that the limit on what individuals are allowed to give candidates ($46,200 per two-year cycle) and parties and PACs ($70,800 per two-year cycle) is an unconstitutional violation of the individual donor’s free speech rights. The U.S. Court of Appeals already ruled in favor of keeping the biennial limits, which have been in place since 1971 and were upheld in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case. By accepting the case, the Supreme Court is stepping into the thick of another controversial campaign finance case just three years after ruling in Citizens United v. FEC that corporations and unions can spend freely on elections. If the court rules against the two-year limits, it would mark the first time a court has overturned a part of the landmark Buckley ruling that deals with campaign contribution limits. This is not terribly surprising as the court has been hostile to campaign finance laws ever since Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a supporter of campaign finance regulation, was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, a member of the court’s conservative bloc who is opposed to campaign regulation.

National: Decades later, attorney tracks new challenge to Voting Rights Act | The Advertiser

It was a battle that attorney Armand Derfner thought he had helped win almost five decades ago. In 1968, Derfner represented black Mississippi voters before the Supreme Court in one of the first constitutional tests of a key Voting Rights Act provision. Derfner and a team of civil rights lawyers prevailed, expanding the provision’s scope and keeping the protection in place. Today, Derfner, 74, is watching the Voting Rights Act confront a new challenge — on the same issue he argued 45 years ago.

National: Supreme Court to Hear Alabama County’s Challenge to Voting Rights Act |

Jerome Gray, a 74-year-old black man, has voted in every election since 1974 in this verdant little outpost of some 4,000 people halfway between Mobile and Montgomery. Casting a ballot, he said, is a way to honor the legacy of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a civil rights landmark born from a bloody confrontation 70 miles north of here, in Selma. The franchise remains fragile in Evergreen, Mr. Gray said. Last summer, he was kicked off the voting rolls by a clerk who had improperly culled the list based on utility records. A three-judge federal court in Mobile barred the city from using the new voting list, invoking Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires many state and local governments, mostly in the South, to obtain permission from the Justice Department or from a federal court in Washington before making changes that affect voting. That provision is also at the heart of one of the marquee cases of the Supreme Court’s term, Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96, which will be argued on Feb. 27. It was brought by Shelby County, near Birmingham, and it contends that the provision has outlived its purpose of protecting minority voters in an era when a black man has been re-elected to the presidency.

National: Online voting: Safe for Oscars, but not yet for elections? | TechHive

For the first time ever, this year’s Oscar winners were selected online. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences decided to let its members vote online, but cybersecurity and elections experts say that casting Internet ballots in public elections is still a long way off. Even picking Best Picture winners led to serious snafus. The voting deadline for the Oscars was extended in early January after some members had issues with account registration (password requests were answered by snail mail rather than email). But in public elections, deadlines can’t be extended. A group of cybersecurity and elections experts last week reiterated the dangers of modeling public elections after private ones. Companies who design online voting systems for award shows or corporate shareholder meetings may suggest these systems can also be used in congressional or presidential races. Those claims should be met with skepticism, said computer scientist David Jefferson, chairman of the nonprofit Verified Voting Foundation. “There are major differences between private and public elections: the degree of security required, the degree of privacy required, the degree of transparency required,” Jefferson said in a telephone press conference Thursday. “In a public election we’re talking about a national security situation.”

National: Online Voting For Academy Awards Must Not Become Model For Public Elections, Cyber Security & Voting Rights Experts Warn | Paramus Post

A group of concerned cyber security experts and voting rights advocates released a statement today warning that Internet voting for this year’s Academy Awards must not become a model for public elections. The group includes advocacy organizations Common Cause and Verified Voting and some of the most renowned figures in computer science including Ron Rivest, co-founder of RSA and Verisign and recipient of the Turing Award;[1] and Dr. Barbara Simons, former President of ACM and author of Broken Ballots: Will Your Vote Count? “When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would be using an online voting system to help its members choose this year’s Oscar nominees and finalists, thereby adding to the “credibility” of online voting, we found ourselves compelled to remind the general public that it is dangerous to deploy voting by email, efax, or through internet portals in public governmental elections at this time,” the experts said. “Public elections run by municipal, local and state governments should not be compared to elections like the one run by the Academy.”

National: Opposing Election Lawyers to Lead Obama Voting Panel |

Robert Bauer and Ben Ginsberg, two of the nation’s pre-eminent election lawyers, have long been on opposing sides of legal arguments. Last fall they were quarreling over voter registration, early voting laws and how the debates should be staged between their respective clients, President Obama and Mitt Romney. But for the next six months they will be working side by side on a new presidential commission, surveying election officials and customer service specialists — possibly from theme parks and other crowded places — to find ways to streamline how Americans cast their ballots and reduce the long lines that kept hundreds of thousands of people from voting in November. The president, in announcing the commission during his State of the Union address on Tuesday, noted that the presence of Mr. Ginsberg, a longtime Republican, would lend credibility and move beyond party politics to ensure its bipartisan nature.

National: President’s New Voting Commission Greeted With Skepticism | NPR

One of the more memorable moments in President Obama’s State of the Union address this week was his introduction of an elderly woman sitting in the House gallery. The president said that Desiline Victor had to wait three hours last year to vote in North Miami. “Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line to support her,” Obama said. “[Because] Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read, ‘I Voted.’ But Obama’s plan to fix the problem — setting up a presidential commission — hasn’t gotten many cheers. Voting-rights advocates are lukewarm at best, while Republicans are dismissive. So far, there are few details about the new commission. Obama said it will be headed by two longtime election lawyers, “who, by the way, recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Gov. [Mitt] Romney’s campaign.”

National: Computer security experts and advocates: Internet voting poses risk |

Just because online voting is possible, doesn’t mean the U.S. government should try it for national elections any time soon. That’s the message computer security experts and advocates for voting rights are trying to get across to American voters. David Jefferson, a Lawrence Livermore computer scientist, said Thursday that hosting a national election online poses a national security threat. Jefferson was part of a press conference hosted by Common Cause, a transparency advocacy organization. He pointed out three fundamental areas of attack by hackers or viruses, with no immediate solutions for online voting. “Client side” attacks would trigger malicious software in a voter’s computer or smartphone itself. “Server side” attacks could bring down the servers that would collect and count the votes and the “denial of service” attacks could actually prevent people from voting and take the server down. “There is no fundamental solution to any of these categories of problems, and at least for the client or server side, anyone in the world can initiate such an attack. It can be completely undetectable so the outcome would be wrong and no one would know about it,” said Jefferson, who serves on the board of the Verified Voting Foundation and California Voter Foundation. Even if a faulty outcome is discovered, he added, there would be no way to correct it as there would be no audit trail to “recount.”

National: Obama announces voting rights commission to tackle broken system |

Barack Obama has ordered the creation of a non-partisan commission on voting rights in the US in an attempt to remove the hurdles to democratic participation that dogged the 2012 presidential election. The announcement of the commission on voting puts flesh on the promise Obama made in his second inaugural speech last month to fix America’s broken voting system. Last November, voters in main urban centres were inconvenienced by long lines at polling stations that in some areas forced citizens to wait for hours before casting their ballot. Florida, in particular, witnessed chaotic scenes with more than 200,000 voters estimated to have given up having waiting because the queues were so long. Obama said that the impediments to voting needed to be corrected, as voting was “our most fundamental right as citizens. When Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals.” The president added: “We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.”

National: Obama’s proposed voting commission under partisan fire from both sides | The Washington Post

President Obama’s proposed commission on electoral reform, which seeks to improve voting efficiency and reduce long wait times for voters, is producing heated criticism from advocates on both the right and the left. Some conservatives view the initiative as federal overreaching on an issue that is rightly the province of states, while some voting rights advocates say that the president’s proposed commission is a too-timid response to what they see as a huge problem. “Setting up a commission is not a bold step; it is business as usual,” said Elisabeth Mac­Namara, president of the League of Women Voters. Critics of the commission say it doesn’t match the severity of the problem. “The president could have done much better by pointing to real solutions, like that in legislation already introduced on Capitol Hill to require early voting, set limits on waiting times, provide for portable voter registration and set up secure online voter registration.” Conservatives said the commission infringes on local control of the voting process. “I do not support the president’s proposal to appoint yet another national commission to study solutions to the problem of long lines at polling places that seems to be confined to very few states,” Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.) said in a statement, adding that she is opposed to national mandates.

National: Obama proposes commission to address long lines at polls | USAToday

Upset by the long lines encountered by thousands of voters in November, President Obama is creating a bipartisan panel to look into the problem and propose solutions. “When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals,” Obama planned to say in his State of the Union address. “We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.” Obama’s response represents less than some voting rights groups had sought. But they noted it could give his eventual recommendations bipartisan cover rather than cast them as proposals designed to help Democrats at the polls.

National: Long Florida election lines prompt federal voter bill | Orlando Sentinel

Long lines on Election Day in Florida and elsewhere spurred a call from President Barack Obama Tuesday for a bipartisan commission “to improve the voting experience” and drew new support for federal legislation aimed at cutting wait times. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Obama said that five-, six- and seven-hour voting lines – seen in Florida during the Nov. 6 election and detailed in an Orlando Sentinel analysis – “are betraying our ideals.” He said he has asked experts from his and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns to jointly lead the voting commission. Also Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida declared that he is joining fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer of California as lead sponsors of a bill that would establish a goal that “no American voter has to wait longer than an hour to cast a ballot” in a federal election.

National: On State Of The Union Voting Commission Proposal, State Lawmakers Divide Along Party Lines | Huffington Post

State lawmakers’ reactions to President Barack Obama’s announcement Tuesday night of a new bipartisan voting commission split along party lines. The announcement of the election commission during the State of the Union address was greeted positively by Democratic state lawmakers, who see the panel as a way to generate ideas to improve state and local election administration. However, Republicans said the panel violates the 10th Amendment, noting that elections are a function of state government and not a place for federal officials. Obama announced that the commission, to be co-chaired by top attorneys from his and Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaigns, would develop “common-sense, non-partisan solutions” to reduce wait times and improve voting experiences.

National: Rep. Miller opposes voting reforms | The Detroit News

President Barack Obama called Tuesday for a national commission to study ways to make it easier for Americans to vote, but one former Michigan secretary of state didn’t like the idea. Voting issues have been debated in Michigan with confusion over a citizenship checkoff on ballot applications and Gov. Rick Snyder and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson calling for changes to make it easier to register and cast absentee votes. “We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected. That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote,” Obama said in the State of the Union. Obama said he’s appointing top members of his re-election campaign and the campaign of GOP nominee Mitt Romney to head up the commission.

National: Presidential Voting Commission To Be Chaired By Obama, Romney Campaign Lawyers | Huffington Post

The two top lawyers for the presidential campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will co-chair an independent presidential commission on election reform, the president announced during his 2013 State of the Union address. “We must all do our part to make sure our God-given rights are protected here at home,” Obama said, according to his prepared remarks. “That includes our most fundamental right as citizens: the right to vote. When any Americans — no matter where they live or what their party — are denied that right simply because they can’t wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That’s why, tonight, I’m announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America,” Obama continued. “And I’m asking two longtime experts in the field, who’ve recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney’s campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.”

National: Fixing Long Lines At The Polls May Be Harder Than You Think | NPR

Minutes after he was re-elected in November, President Obama vowed to fix the long lines that many voters faced at the polls. He mentioned the problem again in his inaugural address. And now, the president is expected to raise it once more in the State of the Union address on Tuesday — this time with some possible solutions. When Obama made his initial vow after midnight on election night, some Miami polling places had just closed — after voters stood in line for six, seven, even eight hours to cast ballots. There were similar waits at other polling sites in Florida and elsewhere. “For me, who voted in the state of Maryland, I was in line for seven hours,” says Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, a leading voting-rights group. Today, not all Americans have equal access to the polls, she says. “We have 13,000 election jurisdictions that run elections 13,000 different ways,” she says. “That is what we have to fix.”

National: State of the Union guest Desiline Victor, 102, will be the face of voting delays at address | The Washington Post

When she set out to her local library in North Miami, Fla., to cast her vote in the presidential election last year, Desiline Victor had no way of knowing the journey would lead all the way to the White House. On Tuesday night, Victor, a 102-year-old Haitian immigrant, will sit in the ornate House chamber as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama to listen to President Obama’s State of the Union address. Victor voted for the president, but it was not easy. On her first visit to the polls on the morning of Oct. 28, the first day of early voting, she waited in line for three hours. Poll workers eventually advised her to come back later, and she did. She finally cast her vote that evening. Her story spread around the polling place and inspired some would-be voters to stay in line, too, instead of being deterred by the delays.

National: FEC chairwoman warns of super PAC corruption | The Center for Public Integrity

Do candidate-specific super PACs pose a greater threat of corruption to democracy than multi-candidate super PACs, Federal Election Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub asked Friday at a Willamette Law School symposium on political money and influence. The answer, Weintraub said in response to her own question, “could be yes. I would probably define corruption a little more broadly than the Supreme Court does,” Weintraub added.  Ahead of last year’s elections, candidate-specific super PACs proliferated. President Barack Obama’s allies, for instance, created Priorities USA Action, while GOP operatives launched Restore Our Future to support the presidential ambitions of Republican Mitt Romney.

National: The GOP’s electoral vote gambit: Reasonably popular, but doomed | Washington Post

Many Americans support the way that Republicans want to adjust how some states award their electoral votes. But that doesn’t mean there’s going to be any new life breathed into the dying effort. A new poll from Quinnipiac University shows that neither awarding electoral votes on a winner-take-all basis to the winner of the statewide vote nor awarding them by congressional district gains majority support. Forty-six percent prefer the winner-take-all method, while 41 percent prefer to do it by congressional district, as Republicans in some key states are proposing. The rest are unsure. But that probably says more about people’s openness to Electoral College reform than it does about how much they like the GOP’s proposal.

National: Teachers Union Pushes Voting Rights, Disclosure Ahead Of State of the Union address | TPM

The largest teachers unions in the country is pushing President Obama to prioritize a number of electoral reforms, from new protections for voters to disclosure requirements, in his State of the Union address next week, suggesting a determination not to be outgunned once again during the upcoming midterm elections. “Reactionary state laws, unequal and unethical administration of voting procedures, and the unfettered access of corporations to influence electoral outcomes has severely damaged our democracy,” wrote NEA president Dennis Van Roekel in a letter Friday to Obama.

National: U.S. Voting Flaws Are Widespread, Study Shows |

The flaws in the American election system are deep and widespread, extending beyond isolated voting issues in a few locations and flaring up in states rich and poor, according to a major new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The group ranked 50 states based on more than 15 criteria, including wait times, lost votes and problems with absentee and provisional ballots, and the order often confounds the conventional wisdom. In 2010, for instance, Mississippi ranked last overall. But it was preceded by two surprises: New York and California. “Poor Southern states perform well, and they perform badly,” said Heather K. Gerken, a law professor at Yale and a Pew adviser. “Rich New England states perform well and badly — mostly badly.”

National: Voting Rights Act at Risk? | Congressional Quarterly

Frank “Butch” Ellis Jr. was sitting in his law office a half-hour’s drive from Birmingham, Ala., about three years ago when Edward Blum, an investment banker turned conservative legal activist, called him to discuss the Voting Rights Act. Although the two had never met, they quickly bonded over a common grievance. Blum specifically wanted to discuss a provision in the landmark civil rights law requiring localities with a history of racial discrimination to obtain U.S. Justice Department permission to make any changes to their election procedures. Ellis, during nearly a half-century practicing law in Shelby County, had watched municipal clients jump through procedural hoops to gain “preclearance” from Washington lawyers. Moving a polling place could take months, for example, and require a voluminous paper trail. When Blum suggested that Shelby County officials, with Blum’s financial support, someday might challenge the provision in court, Ellis agreed. “We knew the only way to attack it was in the courts, in Washington,” Ellis explained recently. “We had the desire to do it, we just couldn’t spend our taxpayers’ money on it.”