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The Case of <i>Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder</i>
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Media inquiries: Véronique Rodman
[email protected]; 202.862.4870
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 23, 2009
On April 29, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, a case that has been characterized as “the biggest election-law case on the court’s docket since Bush v. Gore” and that will (according to the New York Times) “set the direction of the debate over race and politics for years to come.”
At issue is the constitutionality of Section 5 of the recently reauthorized Voting Rights Act (2006). Section 5 forbids all of nine states and their political subdivisions (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) and parts of seven others (California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota) from enacting any change to voting practices or procedures without the consent of either of two entities of the federal government: the U.S. attorney general or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Any change–as small as moving a polling location across the street or as large as the redistricting of an entire congressional district–must be preapproved (or, in the terminology of the statute, “precleared”).
The only way a jurisdiction can escape this federal oversight is to exercise the statute’s “bailout” provision, which allows a covered jurisdiction whose record of nondiscrimination satisfies the U.S. Justice Department to be exempted from the preclearance requirement of Section 5.
Designed to expire in 1970, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized, for the fourth time, until 2031. Six days after President George W. Bush signed the bill, a municipal utility district (MUD), a small political subdivision, in Travis County, Texas, sued to bail out of Section 5 and, failing approval for that, argued that the statute was unconstitutional. In August 2008, the MUD lost before a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In January 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal.
While Section 5 was indispensable in the 1960s, as the MUD argues in its brief to the Supreme Court, “[t]he America that has elected Barack Obama as its first African-American president is far different than when Section 5 was first enacted in 1965.”
AEI visiting fellow Edward Blum emphasizes that today, “Section 5 is no longer about black vs. white, but rather, red vs. blue.”
In order to comply with Section 5, legislative redistricting bodies are methodically harvesting blacks and Hispanics out of multiracial, multiethnic neighborhoods in order to create uncompetitive, bizarrely gerrymandered majority-minority districts. This usually fosters the election of far-left, minority Democratic candidates in the gerrymandered districts and far-right, white Republican candidates in the districts denuded of minorities.
Blum is spearheading the case on two fronts. First, in his capacity as an AEI fellow, he oversaw a massive study of the condition of minority voters in the states covered by Section 5 and compared them with uncovered jurisdictions. In addition to testifying in 2006 before the House Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties and submitting the data and findings to others in the House and Senate, Blum published The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (AEI Press, 2007). In the book, Blum charts the degeneration of the Voting Rights Act from a law designed to remove voting barriers for African Americans to a frivolous, costly gerrymandering tool. Second, in his capacity as the director of the Project on Fair Representation, Blum helped recruit the plaintiff and counsel in the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder case and provided various resources to both.
Blum’s interest in opposing race-based public policies, especially in the voting arena, started in 1992, when, as the long-shot Republican nominee for the eighteenth congressional district of Texas, he knocked on nearly twenty thousand doors over the course of a year to introduce himself to the voters. This task was made nearly impossible because Blum had to campaign in one of the most racially gerrymandered congressional districts ever created by the Texas legislature. Blum sued the state of Texas in 1993 and won his case in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1996 (Bush v. Vera). As a result, over fifteen Texas congressional districts were redrawn, eliminating most of the gerrymanders. Blum also facilitated successful challenge to congressional and legislative redistricting plans in New York, Virginia, and South Carolina, among others states, prompting the redrawing of dozens of voting districts to eliminate racial gerrymanders.
Edward Blum is available for interviews and can be contacted at [email protected] or 703.505.1922.
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