Tag: Voting Rights Act

Eric Holder Files Another Baseless Voting Rights Lawsuit

Eric Holder has been busy playing his racial games. Not only did his Justice Department issue a joint guidance with the Education Department on how best to ignore the Supreme Court’s recent affirmative action ruling, but yesterday the attorney general announced a new lawsuit challenging North Carolina’s new election laws, which include voter-identification requirements. This action follows on the heels of lawsuits already filed against the Tarheel State by such groups as the ACLU and NAACP.

Never mind that the Supreme Court approved the constitutionality of voter-ID as recently as 2008 in the case of Crawford v. Marion County (Indiana) Election Board – in a 6-3 opinion written by the liberal Justice John Paul Stevens – but just last year Holder had to back off a similar suit in South Carolina. The formula for valid voter-ID laws is clear: don’t put obstacles (be they monetary or geographical) in the way of someone’s ability to get an approved form of identification and you’ll sail through the courts.

These regulations simply shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Requirements to show proof of identity before voting have been around for decades in all parts of the country. There’s no constitutional right to early voting – many states, including blue ones like New York, don’t have it at all – and North Carolina kept total hours constant anyway, just reducing the number of days of early voting. 

And forget partisan divides; the DOJ’s argument that voter-ID laws and other attempts at orderly election administration disproportionately hurt minorities – on top of being offensive – don’t even seem to make sense to those they purport to support. For example, a Washington Post poll last year found that 65 percent of blacks and 64 percent of Latinos support voter-ID.

Supreme Court Restores Constitutional Order, Strikes Down Outdated Voting Rights Act Provision

In striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court restored a measure of constitutional order to America. Based on 40-year-old data showing racial disparities in voting that no longer exist, this provision subjected a now-random assortment of states and localities to onerous burdens and unusual federal oversight. Recognizing that the nation has changed, the Court aptly ended the extraordinary intrusion in state sovereignty that can no longer be justified by the facts on the ground.

“If Congress had started from scratch,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority, “it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula. It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between States in such a fundamental way.” And so this law must fall.

Of course, the Court really should’ve gone further, as Justice Thomas pointed out in a concurring opinion. The Court’s explanation of Section 4’s anachronism applies equally to Section 5. In practice, however, Congress will be hard-pressed to enact any new coverage formula because the pervasive, systemic discrimination in voting that justified such an exceptional intrusion into the normal constitutional order is now gone.

And that’s a good thing. Today’s ruling underlines, belatedly, that Jim Crow is dead.

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.