Signs of the Times

Supreme Court: Voting Rights Act Can't Make Arizona Get Feds' Approval on Voting Laws

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which calls for Arizona and eight other states to get federal approval on new voting laws, is unconstitutional.

The problem, however, was not that the states needed federal approval to ensure their voting laws aren't discriminatory -- it's how those nine states were selected for scrutiny.

Here's the "plain English" explanation on Shelby County v. Holder from SCOTUSblog:

"That portion of the Act was designed to prevent discrimination in voting by requiring all state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination to get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures, no matter how small. In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts that was joined by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, the Court did not invalidate the principle that pre-clearance can be required. But much more importantly, it held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which sets out the formula that is used to determine which state and local governments must comply with Section 5's pre-approval requirement, is unconstitutional and can no longer be used. Thus, although Section 5 survives, it will have no actual effect unless and until Congress can enact a new statute to determine who should be covered by it.

When the act initially was passed, the states were selected for scrutiny by a "coverage formula," which took into account things like whether states had voter tests, as well as levels of voter registration and turnout.

"In 2006, the Act was reauthorized for an additional 25 years, but the coverage formula was not changed," the Supreme Court ruling's syllabus says. "Coverage still turned on whether a jurisdiction had a voting test in the 1960s or 1970s, and had low voter registration or turnout at that time."

The court ruled that using this same standard isn't fair -- it doesn't illustrate "equal sovereignty," as the majority opinion states several times.

So, if there were a new test set up by Congress, then it's possible that Arizona would be subject to getting federal approval again.

If you click here, you can see all of the changes in Arizona voting laws sent to the Justice Department for "pre-clearance" in the past decade.

What might be more important to look at, if you're looking at the Arizona impact, is the list of Arizona laws that the U.S. Attorney General has objected to since Arizona was added to the list of scrutinized states, in 1975.

You'll notice it's been more than a decade since the attorney general had a Voting Rights Act objection to a change in Arizona voting law. The most recent, in May 2003, dealt with changes to school-board elections in Coconino County.

In 2002, however, the Justice Department claimed the proposed legislative redistricting plan appeared to be unfair to minority voters.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne was involved in fighting the feds on this one, who called it a "huge and expensive administrative burden of preclearance, which humiliates Arizona by making it say, 'Mother may I?' to the federal government every time it wants to change some remarkably minor laws. . ."

The Supreme Court's decision can be found here.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley