This year-end, new battles over the Voting Rights Act are emerging, but they are new battles inextricably embedded in the history of discrimination and civil rights. Signed by President Johnson in 1965, Section Five of the Voting Rights Act, requires 16 southern states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear any voting procedure changes with the Justice Department, or a panel of federal judges.
While the provision was reauthorized in 2006 with strong bipartisan support, it is being challenged today in five lawsuits claiming that the United States has reached a level of electoral equality that precludes the need for Section Five. But, as it stands, Section Five still places the sixteen states under the watchful eye of the federal government, and ensures that the burden of proof remains on each jurisdiction to establish that any proposed changes do not have the purpose or effect of discriminating based on race or color.
The situation currently threatening mayhem during the budding 2012 election season is the redistricting of Texas. After the 2010 census, the significant population increase in Texas meant the bestowal of 4 new congressional seats — and an almighty battle for control of these new seats. And consider this: democrats are currently outnumbered 23 to nine in the state’s 32-member U.S. House delegation, and Republicans control both U.S. Senate seats, the governorship, the state Legislature and most statewide offices.
So, when the Republican-controlled Legislature drew up a new map, the effect was to give the GOP a more-than-good chance to win at least three of the four new seats. But because Texas is one of the states that needs federal clearance for any and all voting procedure changes, a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio discussed the plan and decided to replace the proposed map with a more minority-friendly version, giving the Democrats the edge in three of the four.
At the request of Texas Republicans, the Supreme Court waded into the debate and stayed the orders of the San Antonio panel. The Supreme Court’s decision to get involved in the case — ruling on whether the federal panel overstepped its authority — could be the latest flash point in the already uneasy relationship between the justices and the administration.
This is in the context, of course, of pending Supreme Court rulings on whether the federal government can override Arizona’s immigration law and whether the government is guilty of overreaching its powers in the passage of the Affordable Care Act with an individual mandate.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., however, is not deterred. Speaking from the University of Texas campus in Austin on Tuesday, he confirmed that the Justice Department will argue that the Republican maps fail to reflect the political importance of the state’s growing Hispanic population: “We intend to argue vigorously at trial that this was the kind of discrimination that Section Five [of the Voting Rights Act] was intended to block.”