Civil rights leaders hailed the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8 to 1 ruling June 22 upholding Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) and vowed to continue the struggle to protect African Americans, Latinos, and others targeted for voter disenfranchisement.
The ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, came in the case Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder. The Texas utility was attempting to invoke the VRA’s “bailout” provision exempting it from Section 5, the “pre-clearance” clause of the law which requires states and localities with a proven history of denying Black, Latino, and other minority people their voting rights to pre-clear changes in their election laws to insure they do not have a discriminatory impact. The ruling upheld the Austin utility’s bailout from pre-clearance while reaffirming Section 5 itself.
Debo P. Adegbile, director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF), who argued the case before the high court said, “The utility district brought this case to tear out the heart of the Voting Rights Act. Today, it failed.”
LDF Director-Counsel, John Payton, said, “The entire thrust of LDF’s arguments was that Section 5 remains critical to our democracy and, however grudgingly, the Court acknowledges that in its opinion…today’s decision upholds the constitutionality of an essential core protection in our democracy.”
Without VRA’s requirement of pre-clearance by the Justice Department of changes in election law, he explained, the nation would “facethe grave risk of significant backsliding and retrenchment in the fragile gains that have been made.
The ruling did expand the number of places that can seek to “bailout” of exempt themselves from pre-clearance. However, no Section-5 covered jurisdiction can do so without demonstrating a clean bill of health for a ten-year period.
Payton cautioned, “It remains to be seen how the Court’s interpretation of the bailout provision will impact enforcement of Section 5. If, for any reason, today’s ruling renders Section 5 unworkable in the future, Congress could always amend the statute.”
Gary Bledsoe, President of the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, a party in the case, said, “Though the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District is no longer covered by the Act, the Act still remains strong and in effect. However, because we know that additional challenges will take place as a result of this opinion, we will conduct hearings around our state to continue to gather the necessary data to thwart such efforts. We will also reach out to our allies like the League of United Latin American Citizens to work with us in this endeavor.”
Bledsoe said Texas “fully demonstrates why it is imperative that Section 5 remain the law of the land. Texas has drawn more Section 5 objections than any other covered state…the largest number of minority voters.” African American voters in Waller County, he charged, “continue to suffer from voter intimidation and other irregularities as recent as last May’s elections.”
He said the NAACP’s on-the-ground research proves “acts of intimidation and other irregularities are commonplace.” He cited the indictment of students at Prairie View A&M falsely charged with “wrongfully voting” when in fact they were “doing so legally and with the intended protections of opinions of the United States Supreme Court.” He concluded, “No area of the state is devoid of such problematic behavior.”
Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (LCCRL), said, her group is “pleased that Section 5 will continue to protect the rights of minority voters as it has for the last 44 years. We will remain vigilant and use every resource at our disposal to defend the Act against any future attacks.”
She cited thr findings of the National Commission on the Voting Rights Act in 2005, established by the LCCRL which held 10 regional hearings across the nation “and built an exhaustive record of discrimination in voting” for candidates running for the U.S,. Congress.
The rejection of discriminatory voter registration verification programs in Georgia is the most recent example of the continued importance of Section 5. During last year’s election, the LCCRL discovered that Georgia election officials had implemented procedures that were “erroneously flagging the registrations of thousands of predominantly minority voters as ineligible.”
LCCRL and its allies filed a lawsuit charging that these procedures had not been pre-cleared under Section 5 of VRA. A three-judge panel blocked the implementation of the new voter registration procedures and in May the U.S. Justice Department rejected Georgia’s voting rules as having a “discriminatory effect on minority voters.”