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Public Citizen and Civil Rights Advocates Defend Constitutionality of Voting Rights Act

May 16, 2007

Public Citizen and Civil Rights Advocates Defend Constitutionality of Voting Rights Act

Groups Seek to Continue Necessary Federal Oversight of Local Governments’ Election Laws to Protect Minority Voting Rights

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Voting Rights Act (VRA), which includes vital civil rights remedies to protect citizens’ fundamental right to vote, is constitutional and was appropriately renewed by Congress in 2006, according to a brief filed jointly late Tuesday by Public Citizen, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA) and counsel for other interested parties. Public Citizen and TRLA represent three Latino voters in Texas who joined the lawsuit Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Gonzales in November 2006 as private defendants – along with the primary government defendant, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales – to defend the constitutionality of Section 5 of the VRA and protect their voting rights.

The voters represented by Public Citizen and other civil rights organizations filed the brief seeking a ruling from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that Congress has the constitutional authority needed to reauthorize Section 5 of the VRA. To read the brief supporting the motion for summary judgment, click here.

The VRA’s Section 5 requires certain states and counties with a history of voting discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities to request permission, or “preclearance,” from the federal government before making any change to an electoral law or policy. For example, before a covered jurisdiction may change its method of election, draw new district lines or move the location of a polling place, it must show that the change will not discriminate against minority voters. The VRA also includes a “bailout” mechanism allowing certain jurisdictions to request permission to be removed from federal government oversight. Fourteen jurisdictions have successfully done so in recent years.

Section 5 applies only to areas that have historically discriminated against racial or ethnic minority voters through their use of a test or device resulting in low voter registration or turnout. Covered areas include Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Texas, as well as counties in eight other states, including Virginia, where some local jurisdictions have been removed from oversight after successfully complying with the act’s bailout provisions.

“By renewing the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision, Congress has authorized continued federal government oversight in certain states and localities to ensure that all Americans have an equal chance to participate in our democracy,” said Michael Kirkpatrick, an attorney at Public Citizen. “The act ensures that citizens won’t face discrimination when they try to register, vote or elect the candidate of their choice.”

First passed in 1965 to safeguard African-American voters from voting discrimination and extended to protect the rights of language minority voters in 1975, the VRA has long enforced the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, which require equal protection of the laws and bar states from abridging or denying the right to vote on the basis of race. In July 2006, Congress renewed Section 5 for 25 years. Immediately after the renewal, the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One sued Attorney General Gonzales to challenge this provision of the act. The utility district is seeking to remove federal oversight, though it is not eligible by statute to do so, and is challenging the constitutionality of Section 5. 

Public Citizen and other civil rights advocates argue in their brief that the continued need for federal oversight is demonstrated by documented evidence of voter discrimination, ongoing effects of past discrimination and a risk of increased rights violations if this provision were removed. Now, before changing an electoral law, local and state governments who are subject to the oversight must prove to the U.S. Department of Justice or a panel of federal judges that the change would not undermine the ability of minority citizens to register and vote. Without this provision, the only way minority voters could challenge a discriminatory law would be to file a lawsuit and prove in court that the law violates their rights. Such lawsuits are expensive and often take years to win.

Public Citizen maintains that the VRA has worked effectively to help level the playing field for all voters, regardless of race or ethnicity, and this provision is still needed to finally eliminate long-standing discrimination against minority voters and fully protect their constitutional right to vote.

Nonprofit organizations that represent other voters and that filed the brief with Public Citizen and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid include the NAACP’s Austin and Texas branches, the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way. Travis County, Texas, where the utility district is located, also filed a brief as a local government entity to defend the constitutionality of the act. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed an additional brief also supporting the act’s constitutionality.

“It is important for Public Citizen to defend the constitutionality of one of the most successful civil rights laws ever passed in this country,” said Kirkpatrick. “The fundamental right to vote is at stake, and what happens with this case could affect the ability of Congress to pass other civil rights protections to prevent states from discriminating against their own citizens.”

Oral argument in the case is scheduled for Sept. 17.