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PlaceMattersBTCThis blog post is part of a series called Place Matters. The other posts can be accessed here, here, and here.

The Voting Rights Act subjected 40 percent of North Carolina’s counties to the mandatory “pre-clearance” regulations of Section 5, requiring approval of the Department of Justice or the courts before electoral changes that might weaken the voting power of African American. The evisceration of this landmark legislation by the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder—and subsequent the omission of North Carolina from the covered jurisdictions in newly introduced voting rights legislation—leaves racially excluded communities particularly vulnerable to political isolation and electoral powerlessness.

The UNC Center for Civil Rights’ State of Exclusion report looked at majority-minority North Carolina communities of color (over 75 percent) and measured a variety of factors impacting the quality of life for residents of those communities. The data with regard to political representation was telling, and emphasizes the need for expanding, rather than eliminating, effective policies measures to address the continuing legacy of discrimination in elections. Read More

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With what Ari Berman at The Nation calls “the first attempt by a bipartisan group in Congress to reinstate the vital protections of the Voting Rights Act,” Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will today introduce “The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014.”

Here’s a summary of its provisions:

1: The legislation draws a new coverage formula for Section 4, thereby resurrecting Section 5. States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would currently apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Local jurisdictions would be covered if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” over the past fifteen years.

The formula is based on a rolling calendar, updated with a current fifteen-year time period to exempt states who are no longer discriminating or add new ones who are, creating a deterrent against future voting rights violations. It’s based on empirical conditions and current data, not geography or a fixed time period—which voting rights advocates hope will satisfy Chief Justice John Roberts should the new legislation be enacted and reach the Supreme Court.

The new Section 4 proposal is far from perfect. It does not apply to states with an extensive record of voting discrimination, like Alabama (where civil rights protests in Selma gave birth to the VRA), Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which were previously subject to Section 5. Nor does it apply to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have enacted new voting restrictions in the past few years.

Moreover, rulings against voter ID laws – like in Texas in 2012 – will not count as a new violation. Voter ID laws can still be blocked by the Department of Justice or federal courts in the new states covered under Section 4, but that will not be included as one of the five violations needed to keep the state covered. This exemption for voter ID laws was written to win the support of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans.

2: The legislation strengthens Section 3 of the VRA, which has been described as the Act’s “secret weapon.” Under Section 3, jurisdictions not covered by Section 4 could be “bailed-in” to federal supervision, but plaintiffs had to show evidence of intentional voting discrimination, which is very difficult to do in court. Under the new Section 3 proposal, any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law – whether intentional or not – can be grounds for a bail-in, which will make it far easier to cover new states. (One major caveat, again, is that court objections to voter ID laws cannot be used as grounds for “bail-in” under Section 3.)

3: The legislation mandates that jurisdictions in all fifty states have to provide notice in the local media and online of any election procedures related to a) redistricting b) changes within 120 days before a federal election and c) the moving of a polling place. This will make it easier for citizens to identify potentially harmful voting changes in the 46 states not subject to Sections 4 and 5.

4: The legislation makes it easier to seek a preliminary injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law. Plaintiffs will now only have to show that the hardship to them outweighs the hardship to the state if a law is blocked in court pending a full trial. There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on North Carolina’s voting law in July 2014, before the full trial takes place July 2015.

5: The legislation reaffirms that the Attorney General can send federal observers to monitor elections in states subject to Section 4 and expands the AG’s authority to send observers to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against language minority groups, which includes parts of twenty-five states.

Read more of Berman’s piece here.

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voteIn case you missed it, a federal judge in Alabama reinstated oversight of a city’s voting practices on Monday — the first instance of a court requiring preclearance of election law changes since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act  last June in Shelby v. Holder.

In Allen v. City of Evergreen, U.S. District Judge Callie V. S. Granade used Section 3 of the Act — the so-called “bail-in” provision — to require the small city to submit certain changes to the Justice Department for approval before enacting them into law.

Section 3 relief, which requires a showing of intentional discrimination against minority voters, is also being sought by the parties in the voting rights cases pending here in Greensboro.

As Adam Liptak reported in yesterday’s New York Times:

Evergreen, an enclave of 3,900 people between Mobile and Montgomery, has a troubled history and has in recent years been found to have improperly excluded minority voters from its rolls and redrawn its district lines to concentrate black voters, who are in the majority, into just two of the five districts, limiting black voting power.

The city acknowledged problems with certain of its practices and agreed to the court’s order.

The path to bail-in and preclearance won’t be quite as easy in the cases pending here and in Texas, as the states are fighting that relief.

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder will announce today that the Justice Department is renewing enforcement of the Voting Rights Act in an effort to blunt the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Washington Post is reporting.  That includes a possible DOJ lawsuit against North Carolina over the voting law changes pending in the General Assembly.

The decision to challenge state officials marks an aggressive effort to continue policing voting rights issues and follows a ruling by the court last month that invalidated a critical part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Justices threw out Section 5 of the landmark act, which protects minority voters by requiring certain states with a history of discrimination to be granted Justice Department or court approval before making voting law changes.

The DOJ attack will include efforts to “bail-in” jurisdictions having discriminatory voting laws, subjecting them to preclearance — as permitted under Section 3 of the Act.  The first test of that tactic will come in a pending Texas redistricting case — discussed in our story yesterday — where challengers have asked the court to consider their bail-in claim. The department will support that request and will likewise ask the judge there to require Texas to submit all voting law changes to the Justice Department for approval for a ten-year period because of its history of discrimination.

“It’s a pretty clear sign that a lawsuit against the Texas voter-ID law is also on the way,” Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman, said in the Post. Miller said Justice may also sue North Carolina if that state passes a new voter ID law.

 

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Here’s more reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday to strike down a key provision of the Voting Right’s Act:

FFELE“I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today… Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”
- President Barack Obama

“The activist majority on the Supreme Court has taken the unprecedented step of taking over a uniquely legislative function in disregard of the extensive work of the legislative branch and substituting their own judgment for that of elected representatives.  The decision overturning Section 4 of the VRA leaves millions of Americans vulnerable to discrimination in the most fundamental right of citizenship—the right to vote.  I am deeply disappointed by the result they have reached and its impact on minority voters as well as the precedent they have set for disregarding the factual and political judgment of elected Members of Congress.”
-Congressman Mel Watt, 12th District of North Carolina

“It’s time to bring the Section 5 rulings into this century, not the last century.”
- N.C. Sen. Tom Apodaca, who adds a full voter ID bill will emerge from a Senate committee next week Read More