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Florida challenges federal voting rights law

Florida submitted a request to the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] Tuesday seeking declaratory judgments regarding recently-enacted changes to the state's Election Code [materials, PDF], four sections of which require Section 5 [DOJ backgrounder] "preclearance" under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) [materials]. Relying heavily on patterns of past discrimination to determine which state, county and local governments must obtain preclearance for election changes, the Section 5 rules require covered jurisdictions to clear changes in voting districts, polling places and other electoral processes with the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] or federal courts before enactment. The four relevant sections of the Florida voting law changes [Miami Herald report] reduce the number of days of early voting from 14 to eight, require voters who move from county-to-county and who update their addresses at the polls to cast provisional ballots, require third-party groups that register voters to submit forms within 48 hours or face penalties and reduce the validity of voters' signatures on initiative petitions from four years to two. Even though the provisions in question have been under review by the DOJ, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning [official profile] requested [complaint, PDF] that the federal court either declare those provisions entitled to preclearance under Section 5, or declare the preclearance obligation of Section 5 itself unconstitutional, along with its coverage formula prescribed in Section 4(b) of the VRA, and to issue a permanent injunction enjoining their enforcement. Currently five counties in Florida are covered by Section 5. The VRA was enacted to put an end to the systematic disenfranchisement of minority voters that ran rampant in Southern districts in the 1960s. According to a public DOJ list [materials], currently nine whole states and many individual counties and municipalities are Section 5 Covered Jurisdictions. The US Senate extended the VRA [NYT report] in 2006 by an overwhelming 98-0 vote.

Last month the DC District Court dismissed a similar constitutional challenge [JURIST report] to the Section 5/4(b) preclearance rules. In dismissing the suit brought by officials representing Shelby County, Alabama, and a corps of conservative activists, the court concluded that the modern existence of intentional racial discrimination in voting does in fact justify the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA requirements. The Arizona Attorney General [official website] filed a similar suit [JURIST report] in August seeking to enjoin enforcement of the Section 5 rules in that state. In 2009, the US Supreme Court [official website] upheld [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] the Section 5 provisions of the VRA in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder [Cornell LII backgrounder]. The court voted 8-1 in favor of permitting the appellant municipality to "bail out" from the preclearance requirement if it can establish a history of compliance with the VRA, but declined to rule on the constitutionality of the 25-year extension of the act. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts opined that "things have changed in the South," observing that "[b]latantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare." The plaintiff was a municipal utility district in Texas that wanted to be exempted from the requirement and was challenging the most recent extension generally. At their enactment in 1965, the requirements were only supposed to be in place for five years. Section 5 has since been extended several times.

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