Tag: Fifteenth Amendment

The Voting Rights Amendment Act Is a Bad Idea

One of the responses to the Supreme Court’s eminently sensible ruling last year that deactivated part of the Voting Rights Act was to call for a new, updated law to subject particularly bad actors to enhanced federal oversight. We now see the product of that motivation, introduced by the motley bipartisan crew of Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT). As I write in my new Forbes.com column:

Last week, a group of lawmakers introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014. The timing was no coincidence: The bill was announced on Martin Luther King’s birthday, right before the holiday designated to commemorate the civil rights giant (for which Congress took the week off). This is the long-expected legislation responding to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder last June that disabled one part of the Voting Rights Act. But it’s both unnecessary to protect the right to vote and goes far beyond the provision it replaces to rework the machinery of American democracy on racial lines.

Based on the reaction of certain elected officials to Shelby County you could be forgiven for thinking that a congressional fix is badly needed to prevent racial minorities from being disenfranchised. But all the Supreme Court did was strike down the “coverage formula” used to apply Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain jurisdictions to “preclear” with the federal government any changes in election regulations—even those as small as moving a polling station from a schoolhouse to a firehouse. The Court found the formula to be unconstitutional because it was based on 40-year-old data, such that the states and localities subject to preclearance no longer corresponded to the incidence of racial discrimination in voting. Indeed, black voter registration and turnout is consistently higher in the formerly covered jurisdictions than in the rest of the country.

Nevertheless, the proposed legislation draws a new coverage formula, resurrecting Section 5’s requirements for states with five violations of federal voting law over a rolling 15-year period. (That formula would currently apply to four states: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.) It also sweeps in sub-state jurisdictions that have had one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout”—which can mean simply an average racial-minority turnout rate lower than that nationwide for either minorities or non-minorities.

All that sounds reasonable—Congress is finally updating its coverage formula—until you realize that this reimposition of Section 5 comes without any proof that other laws are inadequate to address existing problems (which is what the Constitution demands to justify the suspension of the normal federalism in this area). After all, Section 5 was an emergency provision enacted in 1965 to provide temporary federal receivership of morally bankrupt state elections, not to enable a constitutional revolution based on arbitrary statistical triggers.

Read the whole thing, and download this longer piece on why the Shelby County ruling actually vindicates Martin Luther King’s dream.

Supreme Court Should Clarify the Meaning of “One-Person, One-Vote”

As I wrote in January, the Supreme Court is currently considering – and will likely decide next week – whether to review a case, Lepak v. City of Irving, involving the constitutional principle of one-person, one-vote (OPOV). The specific issue is whether redistricting processes trying to comply with OPOV should equalize the total population in each electoral district or the number of citizens of voting age.  If the former, then a relatively small number of eligible voters in a heavily immigrant district can have their votes “over-weighted” compared to voters in other districts that are similarly populated but have far more eligible voters – as happened in Irving, Texas. Cato filed a brief supporting the challengers that highlighted the untenable conflict between OPOV and modern applications of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

Over the last few days, several commentators have discussed this case and its implications -– including most recently Adam Liptak in the New York Times.  Most have presented the question facing the Court in Lepak as a choice between two competing theories of democracy: electoral equality (ensuring the equal weighting of voters’ votes) and representational equality (ensuring residents have equal access to representation).  For example, Liptak quotes University of Texas law professor Joseph Fishkin as describing the “enormous practical consequences” of a Court ruling that mandates electoral equality, which include “shift[ing] power markedly at every level, away from cities and neighborhoods with many immigrants and children and toward the older, white, more exclusive native-born areas.”  But this framing of the issue as a mutually exclusive “choice” rests on two crucial assumption, both of which are deeply flawed. 

First, most basically, it’s a false choice.  Electoral and representational equality aren’t mututally exclusive.  States and cities can –and almost always do, albeit unconsciously – create districts that meet both criteria.  That’s because equalizing population between districts will almost always equalize voting power too.  But even in the exceptional case where there are geographic concentrations of disproportionately non-citizen populations in a particular political subdivision, districts meeting both criteria can still easily be formed.   Legislators routinely draw districts that satisfy multiple goals – for instance, equal numbers of total population and certain partisan majorities.  If a state or city pursued both electoral and representational equality as apportionment goals, Fishkin’s parade of horribles would easily be avoided.

Second, Fishkin’s framing incorrectly assumes that OPOV can be met either by equalizing voting power or by equalizing representational access.  But OPOV isn’t some kind of constitutional either/or.  Indeed, as the name itself suggests, the constitutional requirement is one-person, one-vote, not one-person, one-equal-share-of-access-to-representation.  The Supreme Court has made clear that the person being protected by the doctrine is the voter and the thing being protected is the weight of that voter’s vote.  Thus the Court “simply stated” the OPOV doctrine as follows in the 1964 case of Reynolds v. Sims: “An individual’s right to vote for state legislators is unconstitutionally impaired when its weight is in a substantial fashion diluted when compared with votes of citizens living on other parts of the State.”  In other words, the right of a voter to an equally weighted vote stands on its own constitutional grounds.  This right doesn’t somehow evaporate when a city or state creates electoral districts containing equal populations.

This same flaw infects the reasoning in the three circuit court cases that have previously addressed this issue (whose divergent reasoning itself begs Supreme Court instruction).  As the lawyers representing the Lepak plaintiffs – one of whom I should mention is a former co-clerk of mine – put in a recent article in the Texas Review of Law and Politics:

Each [of the lower-court decisions] treats representational equality and electoral equality as morally and constitutionally equivalent. But this is putting the cart before the horse. Even assuming there is a constitutional right to equal representation, in the hierarchy of constitutional rights, electoral equality clearly reigns supreme. The Supreme Court has noted the right to vote is “preservative of all other rights,” and it is. Before there can be any meaningful representation, the right to vote must be protected and secured. In any “clash” between the right of a voter to an equally weighted vote and the right of a nonvoter to equal representation, the right of the voter trumps. 

By ignoring this reality and imposing literally no limits on how severely a city or state could dilute the weight of its voters’ votes, Garza, Daly, and Chen set a dangerous precedent. In those cases, vote dilution was as high as fifty percent. That result is pernicious enough. But it is just the tip of the iceberg. Under the holdings of these cases, so long as the total populations between the districts are equalized, a city could arbitrarily “choose” to make one voter’s vote worth two times, ten times, or even ten thousand times as much as another voter’s vote. Under these cases, any of these “political choices” would be acceptable. Yet how could any of these results be squared with the Supreme Court’s categorical holding that a voter has “a constitutional right to vote in elections without having his vote wrongfully denied, debased, or diluted”?

It’s a good question, and one the Supreme Court will hopefully soon answer.

Voting Rights in Massachusetts and Mississippi

During last week’s oral argument in Shelby County v. Holder – the challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – Chief Justice Roberts questioned the Solicitor General concerning the rationality of the VRA’s coverage formula (Section 4(b)) by comparing non-covered Massachusetts with Mississippi, which remains subject to federal preclearance based on registration and voting data from 1964.  As the Chief Justice pointed out (page 32 of the transcript), Massachusetts has the “worst ratio of white voter turnout to African American voter turnout” while Mississippi “has the best.”  Massachusetts likewise “has the greatest disparity in registration between white and African American” while Mississippi is third best in the nation, “where again the African American registration rate is higher than the white registration rate.”

The Chief Justice’s remarks apparently angered the Massachusetts Secretary of State.  According to a Politico story, Secretary William Galvin found it “just disturbing that the chief justice of the United States would spew this kind of misinformation” and that the “2010 numbers don’t support what Roberts is saying.”  Galvin continued: “He’s wrong, and in fact what’s truly disturbing is not just the doctrinaire way he presented by the assertion, but when we went searching for an data that could substantiate what he was saying, the only thing we could find was a census survey pulled from 2010 … which speaks of noncitizen blacks … .  We reached out to academics at many institutions … and they could find no record either, they were puzzled by [Roberts’s] reference.”

But it’s Secretary Galvin who has his facts wrong—a mistake he could have avoided simply by reviewing the lower court decision that the Supreme Court is considering.  In his dissenting opinion, D.C. Circuit Judge Stephen Williams examined the voter registration and voting statistics from the 2004 presidential election – not the 2010 mid-term elections—because it was the last national election before Congress reenacted Section 5 in 2006.  The question the Supreme Court is considering—which seems to be lost on Galvin – is whether Congress acted appropriately in retaining the same coverage formula that has been in place since 1975 despite significant changes in the country.  To answer that question, the Court must of course look at the statistics that were in the 2006 legislative record. And those statistics, which are publicly available and come directly from the Census Bureau, fully vindicate the Chief Justice’s statement.

Will Debate Constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act — Anytime, Anywhere

Three years ago, some law professors were having a hard timing finding someone to debate the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate.  I naively stepped up to the plate, which resulted in over 100 debates, speeches, panels, and public events (and, as we know, an invalidation of the mandate but salvage of the relevant provision in the form of a tax).

Now we see a similar predicament with respect to Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, the provision that effectively makes the federal government a proconsul with respect to election administration in a seemingly random assortment of states, counties, and towns around the country.  As I’ve blogged and written in a Supreme Court brief, Section 5’s extraordinary powers were justified only under Jim Crow’s exceptional conditions; the Voting Rights Act’s success in eradicating those conditions has happily obviated Section 5’s constitutional legitimacy.  (As I noted more recently, and wrote in another brief, Section 2 has its problems as well.)

Yet my view isn’t shared in legal academia – surprise, surprise – and a leading election law scholar posits that “the case for Section 5’s constitutionality is so clear that the liberal election law professors simply have the better of the argument!”  Three weeks before the Supreme Court hears argument in the pivotal case of Shelby County v. Holder, there is apparently a dearth of scholars willing to speak out against this egregious violation of federalism and equal protection.

Well, in the words of How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson, challenge accepted!

I may not be full-time faculty anywhere – is that a negative? – but I hereby announce that I will travel anywhere at anytime to debate the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Whoever sets up the debate has to pay my travel expenses and take me out to a nice dinner, but that’s it.  Any takers?

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act Has Got to Go

This blogpost (and the brief described herein) was co-authored by Cato legal associate Matt Gilliam.

Today Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the petitions for Supreme Court review in two cases involving similar challenges to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Specifically, the cases challenge the requirement under Section 5 that certain jurisdictions (as determined by a 35-year-old formula in Section 4(b)) receive approval (“preclearance”) from the Department of Justice or a special federal court in Washington before implementing any change to election regulations, no matter how modest.

In Nix v. Holder, the Department of Justice rejected the decision by voters in Kinston, North Carolina, to make local elections nonpartisan – as is the case in most of the state – on the basis that “the elimination of party affiliation on the ballot will likely reduce the ability of blacks to elect candidates of choice.” In Shelby County v. Holder, an Alabama county sued to attain preemptive resolution of the “serious constitutional questions” noted by the Supreme Court in the last significant VRA challenge in 2009. Both lawsuits hinge on the modern validity of Section 5, and both were turned back by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (Shelby County over a heated dissent by Judge Stephen Williams). Both now seek Supreme Court review, and Cato’s amicus brief urges the Court to hear either case, or both.

The Fifteenth Amendment gives Congress the power to craft “appropriate” enforcement legislation to secure the rights of all citizens to vote, regardless of race or color. Congress’s initial attempts to enforce those rights, however, were frustrated by tactics designed to evade federal authority. Congress thus enacted Section 5, meant to apply to jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchising black voters. The Supreme Court, in upholding Section 5 against constitutional challenge in the 1960s, recognized that the measure is extraordinary, exacting perverse and substantial costs on federalism and equal protection principles – but as long as Congress’s electoral concerns were substantiated, Section 5 remained constitutionally justified. Enforcement of the VRA went on to successfully defeat the systemic discrimination that had once justified Section 5.

In 2006, however, Congress reauthorized the VRA for another 25 years, without explaining why certain jurisdictions had to be subject to such an intrusive process on the basis of an obsolete formula, particularly when all of the evidence showed that the goal of minority representation and access to voting in the South was achieved (and indeed that black registration and voting rates were higher in covered jurisdictions than elsewhere in the country). Indeed, the 2006 revisions made matters worse, authorizing the federal government to reject any electoral changes in a covered jurisdiction, no matter how small or insignificant, whenever they are believed to evince “any discriminatory purpose” or “diminish[] the ability of minority citizens … to elect their preferred candidate of choice.” Beyond the harm to federalism, the modern Section 5 thus creates a serious equal protection dilemma, mandating that covered jurisdictions factor race into their election laws even as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment’s non-discrimination principles forbid it.

In addition to these problems, Section 5 cannot coexist with Section 2 (a provision aimed at discrete instances of discrimination in voting). The Supreme Court should excise Section 5, leaving Section 2 private rights of action as the proper remedy for voter disenfranchisement. Because Section 5’s burdens are no longer justified by “current needs,” they fail to satisfy the Court’s requirements for “appropriate” enforcement legislation. In other words, Section 5’s early success quickly obviated its legitimacy. Accepting that point is not an admission of defeat, but a declaration that the VRA has achieved its promise.

The Court will decide this fall whether to hear Nix v. Holder and/or Shelby County v. Holder.

The Modern Voting Rights Act Is Unconstitutional

I’ve written previously about how the current Texas redistricting saga – a decennial battle in that and many states – shows how the Voting Rights Act in its moden incarnation both doesn’t work and conflicts with the Constitution.  The Supreme Court’s ruling last month telling a three-judge district court in San Antonio to go back to the map-drawing board did not begin to the address these deeper issues, which will surface again, perhaps as soon as this fall in a case out of Shelby County, Alabama.

Today I published an op-ed on the subject in the National Law Journal.  Here’s an excerpt:

Originally conceived as a check on states where discrimination was prevalent in the 1960s, Section 5 [of the VRA] requires certain jurisdictions – a bizarre list that includes some of the Old Confederacy, plus Alaska, Arizona and certain counties or townships in eight other states, including (only) three New York City boroughs – to get federal approval before changing any election laws. To obtain this preclearance, these jurisdictions may propose only changes that do not result in “retrogression,” a reduction in minority voters’ ability to elect their “preferred” candidates.

Section 5 was a valuable tool in the fight against systemic disenfranchisement, but it now facilitates the very discrimination it was designed to prevent. Indeed, the prohibition on retrogression effectively requires districting that assures that minority voters are the majority in some districts – an inherently race-conscious mandate. The law, most recently renewed in 2006 for another 25 years, is based on deeply flawed assumptions and outdated statistical triggers, and it flies in the face of the 15th Amendment’s requirement that all voters be treated equally.

Read the whole thing, as well as Cato’s brief in Perry v. Perez and Roger Clegg’s article in the Cato Supreme Court Review on which one section of our brief heavily relied.

Supreme Court Rejects Texas Redistricting Maps, Showing That Modern Voting Rights Act Is Outmoded and Unworkable

Two weeks ago I wrote about the emergency appeal of Texas’s new redistricting maps that reached the Supreme Court last month and was argued early last week.  The state argued that the interim maps a three-judge district court in San Antonio drew didn’t defer sufficiently to the maps passed by the Texas legislature (which could not go into direct effect because they hadn’t been approved by either the Justice Department or a three-judge D.C. district court, per the requirements of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act).  A group of challengers, meanwhile, claimed that Texas’s  maps discriminated against and diluted the voting strength of minorities in violation of the VRA’s Section 2.  Cato’s brief supported neither side but urged the Court to reconsider the constitutionality of the modern VRA altogether, not least because Sections 2 and 5 conflict with each other and with the Constitution.

Today, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned the San Antonio court’s maps because that court may not have used the “appropriate standards” in drawing its interim maps.  In a tight 11-page opinion, the Court made clear that, regardless of the legal ambiguities and other challenges the lower court faced, it still had to use the Texas legislature’s maps as a starting point and only deviate from them on districts where the Section 2 plaintiffs had a “likelihood of success on the merits” of their claims or where there was a “reasonable probability” of failing to get Section 5 approval.  Here’s the nut of the Court’s decision:

To the extent the District Court exceeded its mission to draw interim maps that do not violate the Constitution or the Voting Rights Act, and substituted its own concept of “the collective public good” for the Texas Legislature’s determination of which policies serve “the interests of the citizens of Texas,” the court erred.

That legal ruling is almost certainly correct – and in any event provides much-needed guidance for future such difficult situations – but may not change the ultimate result all that much because the district court most erred in explaining how it did it what it did rather than in doing it.  It even deferred significantly to the Texas maps after saying that it owed them no deference!

Unfortunately, the perfect storm that landed this case in the Supreme Court’s lap – no Section 5 “preclearance,” potentially viable Section 2 challenges, the need to have maps finalized quickly for the timely administration of primaries, the undesirability of having courts draw maps and the lack of clear rules of doing so – is not unique.  Justice Thomas is thus onto something when he reiterated today, in his separate concurrence, his long-held position that Section 5 is unconstitutional. 

But the problem is bigger than that: the Voting Rights Act as a whole has served its purpose but is now outmoded and unworkable – and consequently unconstitutional.  Section 2 requires race-based districting, even as Section 5, along with the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, seem to prohibit it.  For its part, Section 5 arbitrarily prevents common national redistricting standards.   These tensions cannot but produce chaotic proceedings like those here, which are replicated every redistricting cycle.   This state of affairs only serves to frustrate state legislatures, the judicial branch, and the voting public.

Put simply, the VRA’s success has undermined its continuing viability; courts and legislatures struggle mightily and often fruitlessly to satisfy both the VRA’s race-based mandate and the Fifteenth Amendment’s equal treatment guarantee.  Section 5’s selective applicability precludes the establishment of nationwide districting standards, confounding lower courts and producing different, often contradictory, treatment of voting rights in different states – in large part because Sections 2 and 5 themselves conflict with each other.

These difficulties – constitutional, statutory, and practical – disadvantage candidates, voters, legislatures, and courts, and undermine the VRA’s great legacy of vindicating the voting rights of all citizens.  While Perry v Perez may not have been the right vehicle for doing so because of exigencies involved in election administration, the Court should reconsider the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act as presently conceived at the next available opportunity.