Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) introduced legislation last week that would amend the Voting Rights Act and recalibrate the coverage formula for preclearance. The legislation responds to the Supreme Court's ruling last summer in Shelby County v. Holder, striking Section 4(b) of the VRA, the coverage formula for the preclearance requirement. That ruling left Section 5 preclearance nearly a dead letter (although litigants could still seek to have a court order a jurisdiction to bail-in to preclearance under Section 3).
The bills would update the coverage formula to include states that have 5 or more voting rights violations during the previous 15 years and political subdivisions that have 3 or more voting rights violations during the previous 15 years. (Coverage would continue for 10 years, unless the jurisdiction gets a court order releasing it.) This new formula would cover Georgia, Louisiana, Misissippi, and Texas, but not Alabama, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia.
The bills also contain a number of other provisions, perhaps most notably expanding Section 3 bail-in so that litigants can ask a court to bail-in a jurisdiction when that jurisdiction has intentionally discriminated (as now) and for any other violation of the VRA. Ari Berman over at The Nation has a nice summary.
The new provisions will undoubtedly be challenged when and if they're enacted. On the one hand, they address a major concern of the Court in Shelby County: they update the coverage formula to use more current violations as the basis for coverage. But on the other hand, they still treat states differently (and potentially run afoul of the Court's new-found "equal sovereignty" doctrine), and the state-wide formula does not account for actual voter turn-out (although the political subdivision formula does) and neither formula addresses the number of elected officials--data that the Court found at least relevant in its ruling.