Controversy Stirs over Supreme Court’s Amendment of 1965 Voting Rights Act

This past June, the question of reviewing policies provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. In a controversial yet expected 5-4 decision, the Court struck down Section 4 of the law citing "things have changed dramatically" since the groundbreaking civil rights law was signed by then President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and put into effect nearly fifty years ago. Section 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act originally addressed widespread lawless conduct by strong-minded government representatives for denying blacks the right to vote in mostly southern States.

The decision was delivered by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts together with affirmations by Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy. An extensive dissent was issued by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg along with Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor, in favor of the sustained strength of the law in regard to certain states being granted the ability to make any changes to voting laws without preclearance by the federal government.

The opinion stated that it did not strike down the act of Congress "lightly," and went on to say that it "took care to avoid ruling on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act" as a whole.

In his bench statement, Roberts said that "Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions". He further accused Congress of voting on previous extensions of Section 4 as being based on "obsolete statistics" and that the coverage method "violates the constitution."

Roberts did admit that "there is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act. The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process." However, the indicated antiquated methods striking down Section 4 was cited as the major reason for the Court's resulting opinion.

Section 5, which is the preclearance requirement itself, was not ruled upon by the Court. It obliges those states previously listed to have any changes cleared by a federal court or the Department of Justice in regard to making any changes to their voting regulations. Instead, the court ruled that the existing method that concludes which states were supervised by Section 5 is unconstitutional. In effect this has basically eliminated any enforcement of that Section of the law. Although Section 5 had been renewed and amended each time it was presented to Congress, because of the Court's non-ruling it has essentially been thrown back to the legislative body to enact new procedures even though it was previously renewed and extended  four times, most recently signed into law in 2006 by the President George W. Bush in a 25-year extension. But with the current House under the control of the GOP it is unlikely that it will be acted upon any time soon.

It didn't take long for some States that fell under the provision to take action on the eviscerated law. A mere two hours after the decision, a proclamation was announced by Texas's Attorney General, Greg Abbott.

Last year the state of Texas was already moving forward with a new voter ID law as well as a redistricting map. Both were blocked by the Justice Department in March 2012 for discriminating against black and Latino citizens of the State.

The DOJ found that under selected data variables "Hispanic registered voters are more than twice as likely as non-Hispanic registered voters to lack such identification." The Department also went on to suggest that the hours and locations of license offices made it problematic for various Hispanic residents to achieve that identification. Previously, a separate panel on a federal court blocked the initiation of a redistricting map that was passed by the Texas legislature in 2011. The Court ruled that it had been sanctioned with "a discriminatory purpose." Since the map was not allowed, a federal court in San Antonio temporarily drew the maps. The Texas legislature passed this temporary map into law, with minimal changes, and had been waiting for the signature of the governor. However, now that the Supreme Court has ruled, the original maps that had been blocked in the 2011 case would now be operative, and the governor could merely veto the maps that were drawn in San Antonio, according to an elections lawyer in Dallas.

Abbott's statement specifically stated that "With today's decision, the state's voter ID law will take effect immediately. Redistricting maps passed by the legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government."

The strict new photo ID requirements which were blocked in the 2011 case would necessitate Texans to display one of a very thin list of acceptable photo IDs. For example, submitting an expired gun license even from another state would be accepted, but student ID cards as well as Social Security cards would not be enough proof of identity under this law. In the case where a prospective voter doesn't have an ID they would have to travel to what could amount to great distances at their own expense, then display their birth certificate, and in many cases be charged a fee to get an accepted ID. Opponents of the law say that many poor people, seniors, and minorities broadly fall into this group.

North Carolina waited a little longer before taking similar actions. In early August, Governor Pat McCrory signed a bill presented to him by the North Carolina Legislature eliminating an extensive assortment of voting procedures considered to protect certain groups of individuals against voter disenfranchisement including the requirement of photo ID at the polls. It was specifically condemned by critics, slamming the action as an effort to disenfranchise minorities, the poor and voters with disabilities. Other statements that were pointed out listed what it described as "harsh provisions" in the measure, including shortening early voting, eliminating same-day voter registration, and abolishing state-directed voter registration drives.

In a statement regarding McCrory's signing of the law, the North Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said that the new law "attacks democracy at its core" by making it harder for eligible voters… Many of these restrictions, such as eliminating pre-registration for 16 and 17-year-olds, and disallowing use of college IDs at the polls, will severely discourage young people from participating in elections." They went on to elaborate about the changes saying "Others, such as shortening early voting and making it more difficult to set up satellite polling stations will be extremely burdensome for elderly and disabled voters who rely on such methods to cast their votes."

Advocates of the new laws state that it will diminish voter fraud or possibly bring it to a halt. They emphasize that having valid, government-issued photo ID is a practical, present-day requirement. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger further went on to indicate that in recent polling, the results exhibited that more than 72% of residents of the State supported voters to be required to show photo identification before being allowed to cast their ballot. He described the law as a "hugely popular, common-sense" provision. He continued by saying that the law is "a measure that restores confidence in our election process and ensures voters are who they say they are is a no-brainer; and nearly three-quarters of North Carolinians agree,"

Contrary to Berger's remarks, Attorney General Eric Holder expressed deep discontentment with the Supreme Court's modifications in the Voting Rights Act and their non-action in addressing Section 5. "For nearly five decades, preclearance served as a potent tool for addressing inequities in our election systems. Although preclearance originated during the Civil Rights Movement and was informed by a history of discrimination, the conduct that it was intended to address continues to this day," he said.

Referring to the steps taken by the Texas legislature and signing by its Governor, Holder said he has instructed the DOJ to request a federal court in Texas to subject the State to a circumstance comparable to preclearance rights. He said that there is still evidence of racial discrimination, and consequently the State should be required to go through a federal preapproval prior to the implementation of any changes in its voting laws.

He went on to say that this action would not be the Justice Department's last act concerning the protection of voting rights "It will continue monitoring jurisdictions nationwide for changes that may hamper these voting rights", Holder said.

Clearly, it's not only Texas where Attorney General Eric Holder wants to get around the Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby County. At the end of September, The Department of Justice announced that a lawsuit was filed to block North Carolina's voter-ID law, just as they did in Texas, and probably will go ahead with the same for all of the former pre-clearance states that attempt to enforce the changes made by the Court.

In his latest press release, Holder said: "The North Carolina law includes troubling new restrictions, such as provisions that will significantly reduce early voting days; eliminate same-day registration during early voting; impose a restrictive photo identification requirement for in-person voting; and prohibit the counting of otherwise legitimate provisional ballots that are mistakenly cast in the right county, but in the wrong precinct."

Other States that may decide to implement their voter ID laws due to the new provisions set by the Supreme Court may still face strong opposition and hurdles, as civil rights groups and their leaders, assisted by the federal government will more than likely pursue legal actions, using Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. This Section is also a mechanism to prevent discrimination under the law.

By many, the new voter ID law has been called a remedy to a problem that doesn't exist. According to a national public-records search regarding the results of votes cast in recent general elections, out of 649 million votes cast, only 13 cases of in-person voter ID deception were uncovered. The study found that there is more suspected fraud in voter registration and absentee ballots than in identification fraud or any of the other categories. The findings show a total of 400 cases involving registration fraud and close to 500 cases of alleged absentee ballot fraud which are both miniscule percentages of the overall ballots cast. According to the analysis, requiring persons to display their picture ID at the polling offices wouldn't have prevented those instances. The results also showed 46 percent of the described election fraud accusations were ultimately decided with dropped charges, acquittals, or judgments not to bring charges at all.

At present, to be eligible to vote, there are twelve states that currently require their residents to show some form of photo ID. Approximately thirteen other states are following parallel procedures to enact similar legislation. Many of those states that are now beginning to carry out the changing of their existing laws were previously legally bound by federal preclearance.

To view North Carolina's new controversial voting updates, click here