Justice Department Sues Texas for Voter Suppression
The U.S. Department of Justice is suing Texas, alleging that the state’s new Voter ID law illegally discriminates against minorities.
The DOJ is filing under the federal Voting Rights Act, in addition to charging that the law is in violation of the 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantee citizens equal protection under the law and ban states from withholding the franchise because of race.
The suit alleges that the law “was adopted with the purpose, and will have the result, of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.”
Texas decided to go forward with its rule requiring all voters to show government-issued identification, originally passed in 2011, after the U.S. Supreme Court in June struck down part of the Voting Rights Act which had allowed the DOJ to block the law in advance.
“Today’s action marks another step forward in the Justice Department’s continuing effort to protect the voting rights of all eligible Americans,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. “We will not allow the Supreme Court’s recent decision to be interpreted as open season for states to pursue measures that suppress voting rights.”
The federal government will also challenge the state’s gerrymandered congressional districts, which were previously blocked under the VRA because they were drawn to limit the clout and influence of minority voters.
A Clean Slate
The Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Alabama significantly weakened the landmark Voting Rights Act, but did not completely dismantle it. The court’s ruling threw out Section 4 of the law, which defined the criteria by which states and localities with a history of discrimination were covered by Section 5’s requirement that any changes to voting rules must be approved in advance.
The court decision provided a clean slate, so no states currently need to ask permission to change their voting laws and regulations. Now, when a state attempts to implement discriminatory voter suppression the government can only challenge it after the law has been passed. The Justice Department is challenging Texas using both Section 2 and Section 3 of the VRA, which remain in effect.
Section 2 allows the government to sue after a law has been passed. “Section 2 has always been a very well used provision of the Voting Rights Act,” says Janai S. Nelson, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law. “Now it is increasingly important in combating discrimination because Section 5 is on hiatus if not completely eviscerated.”
One strong point of Section 2 is that it covers the entire nation, not just the limited number of jurisdictions that had to comply with preclearance rules.
Section 3 of the VRA is more obscure. “That provision allows a court to decide to require preclearance or federal oversight over a state or other jurisdiction’s voting practices once the discrimination lawsuit has been filed and discrimination has been found,” Nelson says. “As part of the remedy courts can say not only do we find the law in question a violation, but it is such a serious violation that we are going to require that you be watched and monitored by the government going forward.”
In other words, Texas could be “bailed in” right back to preclearance status if the DOJ can prove its case.
The Justice Department has indicated it is considering action against other states that previously needed government preclearance and also moved forward with suppression laws in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
“The remaining provisions are very strong and can be very useful if they are interpreted as broadly as Congress intended them to be,” Nelson says. “But they do not replace Section 5 in that they don’t provide the same sort of proactive, preemptive fix. We have lost something very significant without that protection but hopefully in using Section 2 and Section 3 we can gain some of that back.”