Several Republican state attorneys general called a key provision of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional and asked the Supreme Court to strike it down. The officials from Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas submitted a brief in a closely watched Supreme Court case arguing that the law oversteps federal authority and places an unfair burden on certain states. The case at issue involves a plan to reshape a district in Shelby County, Ala., a largely white suburb of Birmingham. The new district maps led to the sole black council member in one of the county’s towns losing his seat. But the Justice Department blocked the certification of the voting results, and the town eventually redrew its districts. The black council member later re-won his seat.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, certain states and jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchising voters must seek federal approval, called preclearance, before they can change their voting rules. The law was considered one of the great achievements of the civil rights movement, as it blocked states and towns from using tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests that were meant to keep blacks from voting. But the officials contended in their brief that the areas that must submit to preclearance — “covered jurisdictions” — are unfairly singled out and that many of their regions have higher minority turnout than many places that don’t have to get federal approval before changing their election rules.
A covered region can “bail out” of those strictures if it shows that it hasn’t discriminated against voters in the preceding 10 years, has followed the preclearance rules, has ended voting practices that prevent “equal access to the electoral process,” has attempted to make registering to vote easier and has fought efforts to intimidate voters. The brief asserts that the list of states that have to get approval is “obsolete” and “not linked to current conditions” and that the law is overriding their ability to make their own rules. It also argues that bailing out is “illusory,” because no states have been able to get out of the preclearance rules. Dozens of individual counties and towns, however, have been able to successfully bail out.