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Leonardo Angiulo: What’s Next For America’s Voting Rights Act

Monday, July 15, 2013


At the time of its enactment, the Voting Rights Act was an exceptional piece of legislation designed to combat one of the most offensive legacies of racism in America. For literally generations racial minorities had been systematically prevented from voting by legislative schemes in certain states. The Voting Rights Act was designed to force certain states, identified by criteria such as low percentages of minority enrollment and participation, to present their electoral law to federal supervisors before enactment. On June 25, 2013, a majority of the Supreme Court Decision of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder announced that Congress improperly relied on 50-year-old evidence to justify the Act's application to certain states and ordered the statute, as applied, was unconstitutional.

When many people think about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they think about the hundreds of years of oppression that set the stage for its enactment. In the past 50 years since its original form, the Voting Rights Act has expanded to affect counties and communities beyond the original 9 states. The expansion was to ensure that no organized scheme to prevent citizens from exercising their right to vote could survive in the United States. Both sides of the political spectrum can agree that full and free participation in the electoral process is an essential prerequisite to our Government truly representing the will of the people. The debate created by the June 25, 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder is: can Congress provide evidence to justify ongoing federal supervision of electoral law in certain states?

To start, the plain language of section one of the Fifteenth Amendment states that no one's right to vote shall be limited by the States or Federal Government on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude. Not only that, but section two of the Fifteenth Amendment also states that Congress has the explicit power to enforce this principle by appropriate legislation. These two parts are inseparable because, as you know, the general rule is that any power not specifically granted to the United States is reserved for the individual States. In fact, the Tenth Amendment is generally interpreted to reserve the regulation of elections as a state issue. With that in mind, the majority's opinion in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder is almost more about defining the limits of Congressional action than it is about race.

But there cannot be a discussion about the Voting Rights Act without talking about organized racism. Justice Clarence Thomas' concurring opinion, a man educated at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester by the way, highlights that the Voting Rights Act was originally designed to employ extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem: voting discrimination at an endemic and pervasive level. In fact, as the dissenting opinion drafted by Justice Ginsburg explains, 100 years after the 1870 Enactment of the Fifteenth Amendment the barriers to minority votes were nearly impenetrable. Even with the additional protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, which by its terms guarantees equal rights to all citizens, there were organized and effective efforts to reduce the impact of minority votes.

With this as a historical backdrop, the Voting Rights act permitted the Federal Government to act as a supervisor of elections in those states within the scope of the act. The supervisory role includes a mandate that all changes, no matter how small, to state election law are suspended until approved by federal authorities in certain states. The majority ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder doesn't challenge the importance of protecting individual voting rights, nor do they claim that these extraordinary measures are or were inappropriate. Instead, the majority takes the position that Congress needs to take another look and gather more current evidence as to which states should be subject to these provisions.

Of course, both the majority and minority state that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.” The opening remarks of the dissent's opinion lays out that all of the advances rendered by the Voting Rights Act over the last 50 years occurred simply because of the extraordinary involvement of the United States in local elections. The court notes that advances in minority voter enrollment and participation as well as the number of minorities that hold elected office did not happen by accident. It occurred because, in part, the Voting Rights Act ensured that a previously disenfranchised population was given a voice. The blight of racial discrimination in voting was not restrained by good intentions alone. In fact, the dissenting opinion contends, the states currently regulated by the Act continue to propose offensive laws such as segregationist legislative districts redistricting, at-large voting in city elections to minimize minority neighborhoods impact, and incorporating majority white neighborhoods into municipal entities to affect minority vote dilution. The dissenting opinion submits that this the fact that this type of legislation is still proposed by currently affected states is all the proof needed to show the Voting Rights Act in its current form is appropriate.

If you have an opinion about this subject, the good news is that Congress has a job to do. Namely, the scope of the Voting Rights Act will be debated and evidence will be gathered to determine which, if any, states will be subject to supervision. And if you do, or do not, believe the federal government has a present role in regulating elections in certain parts of our Country you should let your elected representatives know. That’s what they're there for.

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney with the firm of Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski in Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or through the firm's website at www.gskandglaw.com.


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