The Voting Rights Act (VRA) is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed. It began a healing process that ameliorated decades of discrimination and is vital to our commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process. At a time of social upheaval and political inequality, the VRA helped distinguish America as the world’s premier example of democracy. Free, fair and accessible elections are sacrosanct, and the right of every legal voter to cast their ballot must be unassailable. In contrast to past attempts to end discrimination, the VRA required federal preclearance of changes to voting laws in areas with histories of discrimination. Section 5 of the VRA was the only federal remedy that could stop discriminatory practices before they impacted elections. Prior to the 2006 reauthorization, the Judiciary Committees held multiple hearings examining the VRA. Congress amassed a legislative record of over 15,000 pages, documenting invidious discrimination and demonstrating “the continued need for federal oversight.”
In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court severely weakened the VRA’s election protections. In a 5-4 decision, it eliminated the formula for determining which areas are covered by section 5. The result is that preclearance requirements remain, but only apply in the handful of locations subject to a court order.
The ruling suffers from one glaring oversight: it fails to account for the bailout procedures in the VRA reauthorization. Chief Justice Roberts recognized that the VRA “employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.” But while the majority chastised Congress for failing to update Section 4’s coverage formula, it ignored the fact that, far from punishing areas for distant history, any covered jurisdiction could bailout of coverage by demonstrating a 10-year period without discrimination. The coverage formula, coupled with the act’s bailout procedures, ensures a fluid and current response to discrimination. The very fact that these jurisdictions have not bailed out is evidence that the VRA’s “extraordinary measures” are still necessary.
Full Article: Sensenbrenner: Unbending commitment to voting rights.