Saturday, July 4, 2015

What is the Voting Rights Act? And answers to other questions

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In light of today's Supreme Court ruling striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, we found answers to some questions you might be asking:

What is the Voting Rights Act?

The act is a 1965 law passed in order to prevent discriminatory voting measures. It was primarily targeted at Southern states that had tried to deny voting rights to blacks and required jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting measures to get permission from the federal government in order to make any changes to voting procedures.

What areas are covered under the law?

Nine states must seek federal permission to change voting procedures under the law: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Additionally, parts of California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan must also comply. Some jurisdictions were previously covered, but no longer need federal approval for voting-rule changes.

What part of the act does today's decision concern?

Today's opinion ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. That section sets the formula that is used to determine which areas must comply with the preapproval requirement, which is under Section 5 of the act.

What is the formula that was ruled unconstitutional?

According to the Justice Department, the formula has several elements. When the law was enacted, the first part was that, as of Nov. 1, 1964, the state or local government maintained a "test or device" restricting the ability to register and vote. The second element was that fewer than 50 percent of voting-age residents were registered to vote on Nov. 1, 1964, or fewer than 50 percent of voting-age residents voted in the November 1964 presidential election. The 1964 dates were adjusted as Congress extended the law in later years (it now relies on data from 1972). The law was also broadened to address discrimination against "language minority groups" and expanded the definition of "test or device" to include providing English-only election information in areas where people speaking another single language made up more than 5 percent of voting-age residents.

What does the decision mean for the preapproval requirement?

The court "did not invalidate the principle that preclearance can be required," according to SCOTUSblog. But, "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 was the coverage formula last renewed?

Congress renewed the law several times, most recently in 2006. Section 4 (and parts dependent on it, like Section 5) was extended for 25 years and would have expired in 2031.

Is the Voting Rights Act still being used to block voting-procedure changes that states want to make?

Yes. In the past year, according to ProPublica, the Section 5 provision "was the reason federal judges blocked voter ID laws in both Texas and South Carolina, voided new district maps in Texas and prevented early voting reduction of hours in parts of Florida, citing a potential adverse effect on minority voters."

Where I can read the court's full opinion?

The court posted the opinion online here.

Philly.com staff
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