May 4, 2009

A Bad Time To Cut Voting Rights Protections

JUDGING BY the tone of oral arguments in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder last week, the Supreme Court appears poised to strike down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.

It couldn't come at a worse time.

Several justices gave the impression during questioning on April 29 that they regard discriminatory election practices as ancient history. In fact, a wave of restrictive voter ID and citizenship requirements, both pending and enacted at the state level, threaten to erect a new generation of barriers to minority voters.

Controversial voter ID laws have been taken up in nine states this year, including Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas -- all states covered by the section of the Voting Rights Act now facing constitutional challenge. Some state legislatures are also considering laws requiring voters to show proof of citizenship before registering and/or voting.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965 during the era of poll taxes and other discriminatory barriers to voting, requires certain states and regions to win approval, or pre-clearance, from the Justice Department before changing their election practices. That means that states now covered by the law may not enforce new voter ID or citizenship rules without Justice Department clearance. The current case, known as NAMUDNO for short, was filed three years ago by a small Texas utility district that wanted access to an exemption that allows states to "bail out" of the rules if they can show sustained nondiscrimination

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