(Orange, Texas)

February 27, 2013

SCOTUS Considers Voting Rights Act Challenge

Special to The Leader
The Orange Leader

AUSTIN, Texas — Oral arguments are set for today before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that could have wide-ranging impact in Texas and nationwide.

The justices will hear a challenge from Shelby County, Ala., which claims Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is outdated and unconstitutional. That section prohibits states with a history of racial bias from making changes to election procedures without prior federal approval.

Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas, said Section 5 also is why Texas has not been allowed to require a photo ID to vote despite state passage of that mandate.

"The voter photo ID case is one that the state has appealed to the Supreme Court," Burke said, "and the Supreme Court has elected to put on hold - in other words, they've made no decision on whether they would hear it or not, pending Shelby."

Another issue under the purview of Section 5 is changes in political boundaries, since that can be done in a way that seeks to lessen the political power of minorities. Burke said this still is happening in Texas and elsewhere, and shows the continued necessity for the law.

"The mere fact that we still have gerrymandered redistricting that protects incumbents, that protects parties, as the Texas map did - it suggests that there's still a need," he said. "The time has not passed."

The Voting Rights Act initially was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the decades since it became the law of the land, the act has come under attack regularly but has been upheld each time by the U.S. Supreme Court. Then, in 2005 and 2006, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU's voting rights project, Congress took a long, fresh look into the matter.

"It held hearings," he said. "It compiled a legislative record of 15,000 pages. It made numerous findings of purposeful discrimination, racially polarized voting in the covered jurisdictions. And then, Congress - by a unanimous vote in the Senate and by an overwhelming vote in the House - upheld the continued need for Section 5."

Texas is among the 16 states covered under Section 5, meaning election and voting changes must get pre-clearance from the federal government.

The ruling on the Shelby County case is expected early this summer.

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