Tuesday, June 25, 2013

What's Next for Voting Rights?

In the wake of today's ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, striking the coverage formula for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act, the ball's in Congress's court.  While the Supreme Court held that the coverage formula in Section 4 is outdated and unconstitutional, it did not touch Section 5 preclearance, and it did not touch Section 2's ban on racial discrimination.  (Our posts are here, here, and here.  Our oral argument review is here.)

So, Section 2 case-by-case litigation remains in play.  Litigants can still sue jurisdictions for racial discrimination in voting on a case-by-case basis.  But the problem with this case-by-case approach, as Congress recognized when it reauthorized the VRA in 2006, is that case-by-case litigation really can't catch up with the myriad and clever, under-the-radar ways that some states and jurisdictions now discriminate in the vote--the so-called "second generation" practices.  (You can sue your state for a discriminatory vote practice in one election, but by the time the courts rule, the election is over.)  Some of these were on full display in the 2012 election.

Preclearance always provided a back-stop for this problem--that was its principal value.  Preclearance required covered jurisdictions to gain permission before making any changes to their voting laws, thus shifting the usual burden to the states to show a lack of discrimination.  It applied, under the now-struck Section 4, to jurisdictions that had a particularly ugly history of race discrimination in the vote.

Today's ruling strikes the coverage formula in Section 4, but it doesn't strike Section 5 preclearance.  That means that preclearance remains on the books, even if it lacks a coverage formula--and therefore preclearance now sits dormant.

That puts the ball back in Congress's court to re-write the Section 4 formula, to give life to preclearance again.  Whether Congress can actually do that is a different question.  While the VRA passed in 2006 by overwhelming numbers, the inertia was behind the coverage formula then.  (Remember that the same basic formula had been around, doing its job, in 2006.)  Now Congress will have to start from scratch--to write a formula that calls out certain states and jurisdictions and subjects them to the burdensome process of preclearance.  It seems unlikely that this Congress will be able and willing to do that.

If Congress doesn't respond with a valid coverage formula, Section 5 preclearance will remain on the books, but dormant.  That will leave Section 2 litigation alone to fight discrimination in the vote.  As we've seen, and as Congress found, that will almost surely be insufficient.

SDS

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