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Robert Longley

Supreme Court Weights Voter ID Laws

By March 6, 2013

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 27, 2013 heard oral arguments in a case claiming the U.S. Department of Justice exceeded its authority in overturning voter ID laws in southern states based on racial discrimination which may no longer exist in those states.

The case, Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, involves Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which bans states from changing their election laws in ways that might disadvantage minority voters.

When the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 2006, Congress gave the Department of Justice the power to preemptively reject any election laws or amendments in states and counties that had historically discriminated against minority voters. The law applies to all of nine southern states and specific counties in seven more.

The plaintiff, Shelby County, Alabama, argues that in reauthorizing Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Congress violated the 10th Amendment and Article IV of the Constitution be exceeding its authority under the 15th Amendment.

During 2012, prior to the presidential election, the Justice Department exercised Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to block enforcement of voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas, and to ban laws limiting early voting hours in Florida counties where minority voters had historically been more likely to vote early in person than white voters.

Also See: Laws Protecting Your Right to Vote

While supporters of voter ID laws say they help prevent voter fraud, opponents including civil rights advocates and the federal government, argue that white voters are more likely to have a government-issued photo ID, thus disenfranchising minority citizens who might otherwise be fully qualified to vote. According to a July 29, 2012 report from the Brennan Center, more than 1 in 10 voting-age citizens do not have a current, government-issued photo ID.

Supporters of Alabama's case also argue that minority voters in southern states are no more likely to suffer voting discrimination than voters in other states, like Kansas and Indiana, where identical voter photo ID laws are not subject to Justice Department review under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Clarence Thomas have provided a hint as to how the conservative justices of the Supreme Court might rule in the case.

In the 2009 case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, which also challenged a Justice Department application of Section 5, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, "Things have changed in the South." Noting that voter registration and turnout in states covered under Section 5 were roughly the same as in uncovered states, he added, "blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.

In the same case, Justice Thomas wrote that, "lack of sufficient evidence that the covered jurisdictions currently engage in the type of discrimination that underlay the enactment of Section 5 undermines any basis for retaining it."

Also See: How to Report Voting Rights Problems or Violations

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