This morning the Supreme Court heard a challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (listen to oral argument here). I’m not remotely familiar with the case itself, but I worked at the Voting Rights section at Justice last summer and am pretty familiar with Sec. 5. Here’s some press:
[T]he Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a case in which a Texas utility district is challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a significant provision that requires selected jurisdictions across the country to “preclear” new voting rules with the Justice Department or a federal court. Congress adopted the preclearance requirement to prevent the adoption of rules that make it harder for minorities to vote in places that have a history of doing just that. The utility district argues that Congress is exceeding its authority.
Section 5 requires that districts pre-clear every minute detail of the voting process, to avoid gerrymandering problems. It used to be that voting districts could turn into these jagged shapes, embracing certain neighborhoods while excluding others.
What I learned from my boss last summer:
To be sure, there is nothing specific in the Constitution that forbids gerrymandering, any more than there is specific language that forbids the excessive, unfair, or abusive exercise of any delegated power. But the very idea of democracy that is embedded in the Constitution certainly forbids legislatures from immunizing themselves against the popular will.
I have nothing in the way of commentary — I’ve not read any literature at all on this case — but I’m very curious to hear what comes of this. All of the minutiae that goes through DOJ goes through the college interns. The kids have to talk townspeople through teeny details (like printing ten more sample ballots than the town had planned) when the folks running the polling places just want to host an honest election. Federalist arguments abound, and I’m sure they were covered today w/ appropriate incredulity. But the part of this that always struck me the most was when the interns would hang up from the towns, they always finished by asking (purely for demographic/statistical purposes): And may I ask your race?
The election of the first African-American president last year was an undeniable sign of racial progress. But even that breakthrough cannot ensure that legislative districts will not be gerrymandered, voting rolls purged or election procedures modified at the state and local levels in ways that diminish the rights of minorities. For that, as Congress wisely recognized, we still need the Voting Rights Act.