Is the Voting Rights Act Constitutional?

On April 29, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments to decide whether Section 5 of the recently reauthorized Voting Rights Act is constitutional. The case, Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, has been described as "the biggest election-law case on the court's docket since Bush v. Gore" and one that "will set the direction of the debate over race and politics for years to come."

Reauthorized for the next twenty-five years in 2006, Section 5 requires nine states (mostly in the deep South) and parts of seven others to get "preclearance" from the U.S. Justice Department or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia before any election procedures can be altered. Any change--as small as moving a polling location across the street or as large as redrawing an entire congressional district--must be preapproved by the federal government. This preclearance provision is unmatched in our nation's system of federalism.

With this case, the Court will be asked whether cities, school districts, and--in the case of the appellant--utility districts are allowed to use Section 5's "bail out" provision to be released from federal oversight. If not, the Court will face an even larger question: did Congress find enough evidence of gamesmanship directed against minority voters to justify reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, or did it overstep its authority? At this panel discussion, scholars and attorneys representing each side will discuss the legal and political issues the case raises. AEI visiting fellow Edward Blum will moderate.

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