Court Returns First City To Federal Oversight Under Voting Rights Act

CREDIT: AP Photo/Dave Martin

Voting Rights March

CREDIT: AP Photo/Dave Martin

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively eliminated federal oversight of voting rights, at least temporarily. States and cities wasted no time in using the ruling to revive their most restrictive, discriminatory laws. But while the ruling neutered the efficacy of one key section of the Act, Section 5, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder acted swiftly to bring some jurisdictions back under the federal umbrella using another section that didn’t get much play before, Section 3.

On Monday, a federal judge used that section to order Evergreen, Ala., officials to clear several changes with the Department of Justice before they go into effect, in what may be the first instance of revived federal preclearance after the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in June invalidated the formula that determined which jurisdictions have a history of voting laws that disfavor minorities, and were thus subject to federal “preclearance” of any changes to their voting laws. That means that, while preclearance is still permissible, Congress would have to come up with a new formula for the key preclearance prong, Section 5, to have effect. But under Section 3, which was rarely used prior to the high court’s June decision, the Department of Justice can move to individually bring jurisdictions back under federal preclearance through what is known as a “bail-in” if it determines that “violations of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment justifying equitable relief have occurred.”

Evergreen, a town of 3,900 people between Mobile and Montgomery, has the sort of recent history of voting discrimination that would be the basis for a “bail-in.” In the past few years, witnesses allege that black voters were systematically photographed going to the polls as a means of voter intimidation, that African Americans were improperly purged from the voter rolls using utility records, and that the city’s voting map was redrawn to dilute black city council representation in the majority-black city.

Likely recognizing that continued litigation over these claims would not be to its benefit, the small city agreed to federal oversight of its elections. Because U.S. District Judge Callie V. S. Granade’s order came out of an agreement between the parties, it does not predict much about what courts will do on several other motions to “bail in” states and localities. But it is the first signal that federal oversight of voting rights will live on in at least some form after the Supreme Court’s ruling.