Conventional wisdom among some liberals, conservatives, and moderates is that a “polarized Congress” will never update the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act bill introduced today in Congress (summary here, bill text here), however, shows that a bipartisan update is possible. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court scaled back part of the Voting Rights Act. The Act required that all or parts of 15 states (many in the South) preclear their changes to election rules with federal officials. The Court ruled that the formula that determined which states had to preclear their changes was unconstitutional because it was based on election data from the 1960s and ’70s, and the decision effectively released those 15 states from preclearance. The new bill responds to the Court’s decision by tying preclearance to recent discrimination. For example, the bill would require a state with five or more Voting Rights Act violations in the last 15 years to preclear new election law changes. While the new bill would require that fewer states preclear changes, the new bill expands nationwide some of the functions served by preclearance.
Voting rights advocates are girding for a series of crucial battles that will play out over the next twelve months in Congress, in the courts, and in state legislatures. Victories could go a long way to reversing the setbacks of the last year. Defeats could help cement a new era in which voting is more difficult, especially for racial minorities, students, and the poor. Despite some scattered efforts by states to improve voting access, the right to vote took a big step backwards last year. Republican legislatures in states across the country continued to advance restrictive voting laws, while a major Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, badly weakened the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Wendy Weiser, who runs the Democracy program at the Brenan Center for Justice, called Shelby “the single biggest blow to voting rights in decades.”
I attended today’s U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in the case challenging contribution limits. If the Justices rewrite campaign finance law by striking down the contribution limits, checks of up to $2.95 million each from wealthy contributors will corrupt democracy. During the 2012 election, Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon gave a total of over $113,000 spread out to various candidates, party committees, and PACs. Federal law prohibits McCutcheon (or any individual) from contributing over $2600 to any one candidate (per election), or over $32,400 to any one party committee (e.g., the National Republican Senatorial Committee). Federal law also has an aggregate limit–individuals cannot contribute a total of over $123,200 to all federal candidates, parties, and PACs. In the case before the Supreme Court, McCutcheon argues that this aggregate $123,000 limit violates his First Amendment rights. The problem, however, is that striking down the $123,200 aggregate contribution limit would open the door to politicians soliciting checks of up to $2.95 million each. This would lead to massive quid pro quo corruption.
In June, five Supreme Court Justices rolled back the Voting Rights Act, widely considered the most effective tool in preventing discrimination in our nation’s history. Section 5 of the act required that certain states and localities “preclear” proposed election changes with federal officials to ensure the changes were not discriminatory. The Court ruled that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions needed to get preclearance was outdated and unconstitutional. For those of us who care about voting rights, the question now is how do we respond? Some have argued that Congress should update the Voting Rights Act by passing ambitious election reforms. Such proposals include mandating shorter voting lines, making registration more convenient, and passing less restrictive identification requirements. For example, Sam Issacharoff and Richard Pildes—both New York University law professors who advised the Obama campaign—argue that we should look beyond the race-discrimination approach and adopt general election reforms that are race-neutral. The effort to update the Voting Rights Act, however, should focus on preventing voting discrimination—not general election reforms. Promoting broader access is a critical democratic goal, but it is distinct from the goal of preventing voting discrimination. By analogy, a tax deduction for mortgage interest promotes access to home ownership, but separate laws are still needed to prevent banks from engaging in predatory lending—different problems require different solutions. Voting discrimination is real, and broad election reform is not sufficient to address it.
Editorials: Texas Shows Congress Must Update the Voting Rights Act | Spencer Overton/Huffington Post
A recent court action against Texas is important, but it should not fool us into believing that existing laws are sufficient to protect voting rights. Indeed, the central lesson from Texas is that Congress must update the Voting Rights Act. Last week, the Justice Department joined several civil rights groups in asking a federal court to require that Texas preclear its future voting changes with federal officials. The Department relied on Section three of the Voting Rights Act, which remains in force even after last month’s Supreme Court decision. Section three allows a court to “bail in” to coverage areas with contemporary, intentional voting discrimination. Significant discrimination persists in Texas, and the court should order Texas to preclear future voting changes.
National: Should Congress restore key part of Voting Rights Act? House hears both sides. | CSMonitor.com
Voting rights experts presented sharply divergent opinions to a House Judiciary subcommittee on Thursday as members of Congress tried to assess the impact of the US Supreme Court’s decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. Some analysts told the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice that the remaining provisions of the VRA were more than enough to safeguard minority voting rights. Others said the high court’s action marked a considerable setback to future efforts to fight discrimination in the United States. “We have made amazing progress in this country over the last 50 years,” said Spencer Overton, a voting rights scholar and professor at George Washington University Law School. “Unfortunately, evidence shows that too many political operatives maintain power by manipulating election rules based on how voters look and speak.” Professor Overton said Congress must update the VRA and reauthorize the section struck down by the Supreme Court.
The preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act required that all or part of 15 states submit their election changes to federal officials for approval. Today, five members of the Court ruled that the Section 4 coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional and can no longer be used to require that areas preclear their election rules with federal officials. The Court invalidated the coverage formula because the Justices believed the formula was based on outdated election data from the 1960s and 1970s. Today’s Supreme Court decision is a setback for democracy. Unfortunately, today’s decision gives politicians even more power to unfairly manipulate election rules and target Americans based on how they look or talk. There is overwhelming evidence that unfair voting rules remain a very real threat—too many political operatives currently manipulate rules to diminish the voices of growing minority communities.
A Supreme Court decision Monday that struck down an Arizona law requiring people to provide proof of citizenship when registering to vote was hailed by voting-rights advocates as a big win. But several legal scholars say the ruling, written by Justice Antonin Scalia, could in fact set back the voting-rights cause in cases to come. As Spencer Overton, a law professor at George Washington University writing inThe Huffington Post, put it, Scalia “may have implanted today’s opinion with a virus that may hamper federal voting protections in the future.” In his opinion, Scalia found that the Constitution’s “Elections Clause” gives Congress the authority to set the “times, places, and manner” for holding congressional elections. As a result, Scalia ruled, Arizona’s law, known as Proposition 200, is pre-empted by the federal National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to accept a federal form that makes people attest under penalty of perjury that they’re citizens, but doesn’t make them show proof. So far so good for voting rights. But Scalia also ruled—and six other justices agreed—that the Elections Clause does not give Congress the power to set voter qualifications.
We are still waiting for a decision about the fate of the Voting Rights Act, but today the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in another voting rights case. In today’s case, the Court ruled in favor of those who support voter access. Arizona must accept federal voter registration forms — even those federal forms that do not comply with Arizona’s restrictive proof-of-citizenship requirements. The opinion was written by Justice Scalia, who stated in February that the renewal of the Voting Rights Act was motivated by “racial entitlement.” Before assuming that Justice Scalia is a recent convert to voting rights protections, recognize that language in today’s opinion could eventually undermine voting rights. The details of the opinion could empower state and local partisans who manipulate voting rules. The opinion’s reasoning could also hamper federal efforts to protect military voters and restore former offender voting rights.
A few weeks ago, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was motivated by a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” Now comes word that on Monday night, Scalia told a group of students that the provision is an “embedded” form of “racial preferment.” He believes the provision is a racial entitlement because the federal government does not take a similar interest in protecting the voting rights of whites. Even aside from improperly commenting on a pending case, Scalia is wrong. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — currently under review by the Court — is not a quota system to elect minority candidates. Instead, it is an enforcement tool to prevent voting discrimination. Section 5 requires that covered states “preclear” their proposed election law changes with federal officials to ensure the changes are not discriminatory. Nine states plus parts of six others are “covered.” States and localities that maintain a clean record for 10 years can “bail out” of coverage.
I attended yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court oral argument in the Arizona voter registration case. The argument went well generally, but Justice Alito suggested the Justices would create a “crazy” double standard by requiring that Arizona election officials accept the federal registration form. Alito’s concerns are unwarranted. Arizona chose to create two standards when it chose to add special “proof of citizenship” to register. The National Voter Registration Act requires that all states “accept and use” a single, uniform voter registration form for federal elections (states can also still use their own registration forms). The Federal Form requires that prospective voters check a box and sign an affirmation that they are U.S. citizens under penalty of perjury. Arizona, however, adopted a state law requiring “satisfactory proof” of U.S. citizenship to register, such as a birth certificate, U.S. passport, or state driver’s license that shows citizenship. As a result, Arizona rejected over 31,000 registrations that lacked its “proof of citizenship”–including Federal Forms–even though Arizona concedes it has no evidence that any of these individuals were non-citizens.
With public attention focused on the Voting Rights Act, many have overlooked a second critical voting case that will be argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday. The latest case involves the simple question of whether Arizona can refuse to accept a federal voter registration form. But the stakes are much higher. A victory for Arizona could accelerate a nationwide trend of political operatives attempting to manipulate election rules for political gain, and could undermine the power of Congress to protect voting rights. The National Voter Registration Act requires that all states “accept and use” a single, uniform voter registration form for federal elections. States can still use their own registration forms, but they must also accept and use the Federal Form. The purpose of the Federal Form is to increase participation by preventing states from erecting barriers to voter registration.
I attended the oral argument in the Voting Rights Act case before the U.S. Supreme Court, and I came away even more convinced that the Court should uphold the contested parts of the law. Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that covered states “preclear” their proposed election law changes with federal officials. Nine states plus parts of seven others are “covered,” and many of these areas are in the South. Conservatives often complain about “activist judges legislating from the bench.” But some of the more conservative Justices’ comments reveal that the fate of the Voting Rights Act should be a decision for Congress, not for the Court. Justice Scalia said he thinks Congress’s decision in 2006 to renew Section 5 was motivated by a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” It was the kind of political screed you might hear from Rush Limbaugh. Scalia’s baseless platitude could just as easily be made in the opposite direction–someone could claim Scalia wants to strike down voting protections to “perpetuate racial entitlement” whites have enjoyed for centuries. Neither assertion is appropriate in a court of law.
Editorials: Voting Rights Act Deserves More Judicial Deference than Indiana ID | Spencer Overton/ACS
Many who assert the U.S. Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder should uphold the preclearance and coverage provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act disagree with the Court’s 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Bd. of Elections that upheld Indiana’s photo identification requirement. On the other hand, those who oppose Section 5 cite Crawford as a reason Section 5 is allegedly unconstitutional. An honest reading of Crawford, however, provides five reasons the Court should now defer to Congress’s determinations regarding the coverage and preclearance provisions of Section 5. In Crawford, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Indiana ID requirement did not unconstitutionally burden the right to vote (the Court did not address whether ID discriminated on the basis of race). The plaintiff in Shelby County seeks to undermine Congress’s authority under the 14th and 15th Amendments by making the novel claim that the coverage provision violates a “principle of state equality” — but the U.S. Constitution contains no such requirement.
Richard Hasen introduces this symposium by asserting the “smart money is on the [U.S. Supreme] court striking down” Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. But I disagree with his framing. The next Voting Rights Act needs both Section 5 and additional voting rights protections. Unfortunately, Hasen is helping opponents of Section 5. He gives justices allowance to ignore facts and law supporting Section 5, and instead perhaps think: Scholars anticipate our court will invalidate Section 5, so we can invalidate it without seeming too extreme or too political. Section 5, however remains a significant tool in preventing voting discrimination. During the 2012 election, it blocked new hurdles that would have made it harder to vote in Florida, South Carolina and Texas. Hasen himself anticipates more problems if the court invalidates Section 5 – “more brazen partisan gerrymanders, cutbacks in early voting and imposition of tougher voting and registration rules.” Arguments that Section 5 unfairly targets states subject to its jurisdiction are overblown. Areas without a record of recent discrimination can “bail out” of this oversight. Since 1982, no area seeking a bailout has been turned down.