Challenges To The Voting Rights Act Reach The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court may take on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 next term, if two recent legal challenges get their way. Petitions from Kinston, North Carolina and Shelby County, Alabama reached the Court Friday, pushing for the invalidation of Section 5 of the law, which requires that states with a history of discrimination “pre-clear” any changes in election procedure with the federal government.

This provision most recently landed the state of Texas in court after the Justice Department blocked a voter ID law that would disproportionately target minorities. There have been more challenges to the Voting Rights Act in the past two years than in the previous 45, according to Reuters.

The Kinston petition was filed in 2008 over a move to omit candidates’ party affiliations from ballots, which the DOJ blocked because it would make black voters more likely to vote for the wrong person. Shelby County’s appeal comes after the D.C. Circuit upheld the pre-clearance requirement. In 2006, Congress voted to extend the Voting Rights Act for another 25 years, placing more requirements on local and state governments in states with histories of discrimination. These cases argue that the state and local governments are excessively burdened by the law.

The Supreme Court upheld Section 5 in 2009, but Chief Justice Roberts’ majority opinion carefully left open the option to strike it down later. Roberts wrote, “In part due to the success of that legislation, we are now a very different Nation…Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.”

A study released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that Section 5 continues to be very much needed to protect voter rights. An analysis of the ten states which have implemented voter ID laws found that the new requirements place substantial burdens on low incomer and minority voters, who have limited access to offices that issue the proper ID, face an effective “poll tax” through fees required for the necessary documentation, such as birth certificates or passports, and can’t schedule appointments within these offices’ irregular hours. Other reports have found that 18 percent of elderly voters, 25 percent of black voters, and 20 percent of Asian voters all lack ID and risk disenfranchisement by these new laws.