Ten months after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, efforts have stalled in Congress to restore federal scrutiny of states with a history of racial bias. Freed from the need for Justice Department approval before changing election rules, even minor ones, states moved quickly to impose tight voter ID laws. But changes are also playing out quietly at the local level. In Jasper, an East Texas town with a history of racial tension, the City Council is deciding whether to annex mostly white subdivisions. In Galveston, Texas, some court districts have been eliminated. Civil rights advocates complain that these moves dilute minority populations, unfairly reducing the influence of non-white voters. Before last summer’s court ruling, such changes in nine states could not take effect without pre-approval from Washington. Defenders of the decades-old system say the oversight served as a deterrent, prompting state and local officials to think twice before imposing burdensome or even unconstitutional measures.
Rule changes can still be challenged in court after the fact. But such lawsuits are costly, and only a small number have been filed nationwide compared to the typical Justice Department caseload before the Supreme Court upended five decades of civil rights law.
“Now, the burden is on minority groups to go in and try to … prove a measure is discriminatory,” said Michael Li, a Dallas lawyer and Democrat who runs a blog on redistricting and election law. “A watchdog has been removed from the process, and that watchdog was pretty valuable.”
The implications of the new landscape are apparent in Galveston County. A federal court verdict is pending over whether redrawn Justice of the Peace districts unfairly reduce minority voting strength. The U.S. Justice Department denied a proposal to change the map in 2012. But it lost the authority to do so when the Supreme Court ruled last June in a case known as Shelby County vs. Holder, and county officials again changed the districts.