The Supreme Court Decision on NAMUDNO v. Holder

In the case of Northwest Austin Municipal District Number One (“NAMUDNO”) v. Holder, the Supreme Court issued a narrow decision today that avoided ruling on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 requires any change in election administration in certain states and counties—mostly but not exclusively in the South—to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice in Washington. As I wrote earlier, this is a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states’ massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.

The ruling correctly allows a small utility district (and other political subdivisions) to seek relief—known as a “bailout”—from the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s onerous pre-clearance requirements. There is simply no reason for jurisdictions that have, at worst, gone decades without any voter intimidation or disenfranchisement—where the Act succeeded in stamping out or preventing racial discrimination—to continue to go before the Department of Justice for the most innocuous changes in state and municipal election procedures.

Here, for example, an electoral district that wasn’t even created until 1987 wants to move its polling locations from private garages to public schools, for ease of voting. Since Congress amended the Act in 1982, only 17 of 12,000 covered jurisdictions have been able to come out from under the thumb of federal oversight. Congress clearly never intended it to be so difficult to escape having to seek federal approval for such minor changes in election procedure.

This is one “bailout” that actually saves taxpayer money and makes common sense.

Unfortunately, the constitutionality of the Act’s Section 5—in the absence of the “exceptional conditions” the Court cited in 1966 as justifying “extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system”—remains in doubt. While it is a close call whether the Court need resolve that issue to dispose of the NAMUDNO case, Section 5’s validity as a matter of constitutional law and public policy is assuredly not a close call.

As Chief Justice Roberts notes in his majority opinion: “The evil that § 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.”

Indeed, blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are exceedingly rare. Minority candidates run for and hold office at unprecedented rates—particularly in the South. The racial gap in voter registration—the primary concern of the VRA—is higher nationwide than it is in the covered states; in some covered states, blacks register and vote at higher rates than whites.

As Justice Thomas says in his partial dissent: “Admitting that a prophylactic law as broad as § 5 is no longer constitutionally justified based on current evidence of discrimination is not a sign of defeat. It is an acknowledgement of victory.”