Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently said that she has second thoughts about Bush v. Gore. Whatever feelings she now expresses, the U.S. Supreme Court’s involvement at that time obviously had implications for election law, and, of course, the direction of our nation. Since then, the court has ruled on a variety of important voting rights cases, and in a matter of weeks the court is expected to hand down decisions in two additional ones, also having far-reaching consequences. One involves an Alabama county that opposes federal oversight of its election procedures, and the other concerns the scope of Arizona’s law requiring voters to submit documentary proof of citizenship when registering to vote. Both cases, Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder and Arizona v. Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, consider the authority of Congress to protect voters against state and local ordinances that impinge upon fundamental voting rights.
Although the particular issues in each case are different, both relate to a state’s or locality’s challenge to federal authority over elections—in one case, a county wishing to be relieved of federal oversight over its voting laws; and in the other, a state wishing to ignore federally protected access to the registration rolls.
Evaluating the role of the federal government in this context starts with a fairly simple provision in the U.S. Constitution. In Article I, Sec. 4, the constitution states that “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof;…” This straightforward pronouncement reflects the Founders’ desire that ours would be a nation of states that would regulate all of its elections—even for those of Congress. This Election Clause, however, goes on to provide that “Congress may at any time make or alter such Regulations….” Thus, the Founders gave the new federal government authority to override state laws and enact election laws that would apply equally to all the states in federal elections.7
The Elections Clause, however, permits Congress to override state laws only as they relate to federal elections. After the Civil War, though, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified to expand this power over all elections in matters relating to race. Specifically, the amendment gives Congress authority to regulate federal, state and local elections to ensure that they do not adversely impact a person’s right to vote on account of race.
Full Article: U.S. Supreme Court Examines Voting Rights in Two Cases.