WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Wednesday dismissed a challenge to election monitoring required under the Voting Rights Act to ensure mostly southern states are no longer disenfranchising black voters and found that discrimination continues in modern-day polling.
U.S. District Judge John Bates ruled against Shelby County, Ala., which sued Attorney General Eric Holder to stop the monitoring required since the Voting Rights Act's initial passage in 1965. The county argued the monitoring is outdated and that it should no longer need federal approval before changing even minor election procedures such as moving a polling place or redrawing school district lines.
Section 5 of the law relies heavily on patterns of past discrimination to determine which state, county and local governments must obtain "preclearance" for election changes. Bates noted that this section has been alternatively called the centerpiece of the country's most effective civil rights law and an impermissible federal encroachment on state sovereignty.
Bates had appeared somewhat sympathetic to the county's arguments at a hearing in February and he questioned whether evidence of racial discrimination from four or five decades ago justified the continued election monitoring.
But he wrote in his 151-page opinion that after reviewing 15,000 pages of records in support of lawmakers' 25-year extension of the law in 2006 that Congress was justified in finding that discrimination in the covered jurisdictions still existed.
"Bearing in mind both the historical context and the extensive evidence of recent voting discrimination reflected in that virtually unprecedented legislative record, the court concludes that current needs — the modern existence of intentional racial discrimination in voting — do, in fact, justify Congress's 2006 reauthorization of the preclearance requirement imposed on covered jurisdictions by Section 5," Bates wrote.
According to a list on the Justice Department Web site, Section 5 currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, as well as some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire.
Preclearance coverage under the act has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives or Hispanics.
Bates noted that the attorney general has raised hundreds of objections to voting changes in the past three decades and pointed to several examples of outright discrimination across the south since the 1980s, including legislators in Mississippi and Georgia using racial epithets during redistricting debates and reports of harassment of blacks at the polls in Texas and South Carolina.
The Justice Department, supported by several civil rights groups, had argued that new forms of discrimination are most common in jurisdictions with the most checkered racial pasts. They pointed to a variety of examples in which local governments have redrawn district lines or delayed elections in an effort to dilute minority voting strength.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said Calera in Shelby County eliminated its only black-majority city council district when it redrew the district lines in 2006. After the change, Calera's only African-American councilman, Ernest Montgomery, lost his seat. But citing the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department under President George W. Bush voided the election and required Calera to redraw the boundaries, restoring the black-majority district. Montgomery was re-elected.
Shelby County had argued that alleged discriminatory activity takes place across the country, as much in New Jersey or Illinois as in the jurisdictions covered under the Voting Rights Act. The county's lawyers argued the law's formula doesn't relate to current conditions across the country and is unconstitutional.
Shelby County also pointed out that the numbers of blacks registered to vote and elected to office have increased dramatically since the act was first passed. But Bates responded that minority voter registration rates still lag far behind whites and the proportion of blacks elected to office is still is lower than the population as a whole in covered jurisdictions.
Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the department was pleased with the ruling. Attorneys for Shelby County did not immediately respond to a request for comment.