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Supreme Court decision has big implications for Texas voters

Rep. Eric Johnson | 7/15/2013, 8:46 a.m.
Rep. Eric Johnson Texas House of Representatives

Texas House of Representatives

On June 25, the United States Supreme Court handed down a devastating decision regarding voting rights: Shelby County v. Holder. The 5-4 decision struck down an important part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which for almost 50 years has played a key role in protecting the voting rights of minority citizens in places with a history of racially motivated voting restrictions.

Specifically, the court struck down Section 4 of the VRA. This was the portion of the law detailing which jurisdictions must have any changes in voting laws subjected to scrutiny from the federal government to ensure that they are not discriminatory, a process called “preclearance.”

The Supreme Court left intact Section 5, the portion of the law providing for the practice of preclearance, meaning that theoretically, Congress could update Section 4 and put preclearance back into operation.

However, preclearance is currently not in effect, because there are no longer any jurisdictions to which it can be applied. This severely limits the protections offered by the VRA.

On the day of the decision, a few hours after it was announced, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced its intention to begin implementation of the voter ID law.

This law, passed in 2011, had been blocked by the Department of Justice under the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that it was overly burdensome, and therefore discriminatory.

But as soon as the preclearance portion of the VRA was struck down, the state of Texas began taking steps to enforce the voter ID law, on the grounds that the decision to block it was made under the preclearance provision of the VRA, and therefore no longer applies.

However, Congressman Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, has filed a lawsuit against further implementation of the voter ID law. He and the other plaintiffs argue that the state’s voter ID law is discriminatory regardless of whether or not Texas’ changes in voting laws are subject to preclearance under the Voting Rights Act.

Another provision of the Voting Rights Act left untouched by the Supreme Court still allows residents of states and individual counties affected by changes in voting rights laws to file suit to stop those changes in federal court. But the decision shifts the burden from the state to the party arguing that there is discrimination, which is a significant blow to voting rights of citizens who may be disenfranchised by unfair election law changes.

An additional consequence of the Supreme Court’s landmark voting rights decision has on Texans’ voting rights is its effect on the ongoing redistricting lawsuit. The new legislative maps passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011 were ruled unconstitutionally discriminatory, and a federal court designed what were meant to be temporary maps for the 2012 elections.

However, those maps, which the Legislature just passed into law in June, are the subject of further litigation. Groups representing minority voting rights argue that these maps still violate the Voting Rights Act, but the state argues that this lawsuit is no longer valid, since preclearance is no longer in effect.

Most recently, the court decided against Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s petition to dismiss the case, but that does not prevent them from eventually siding with the state.

Overall, Texas has seen immediate effects of the Supreme Court’s decision, which really struck a blow to the protection of voting rights in Texas. Congress must act swiftly to update Section 4 of the VRA to ensure that every American has the unhindered ability to exercise their right to vote.