[JURIST] The Arizona Attorney General [official website] filed a suit [complaint, PDF; press release] on Thursday asking for an injunction on portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) [materials], arguing that it is unconstitutional for a state to clear any voting regulations with the Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website]. Section 5 [DOJ backgrounder] requires states to clear changes in voting districts, polling places and other electoral processes with the DOJ or federal courts to ensure discrimination is not being effected through regulations. AG Tom Horne makes several claims in the complaint, including: there is no rational basis behind the powers given to the Federal government over the states, in violation of the 14th and 15th amendment; Arizona is penalized for archaic violations that have been corrected; and the VRA holds states to different standards based on their Hispanic populations without rational justification.
In 1974, Arizona became only the second state in the nation to popularly elect a Hispanic governor. There was no reason in 1975 to subject Arizona to the extraordinary burden of seeking approval from the Department of Justice for changes to its laws in 1975, and there certainly is no rationale to continue the practice today. As Congress recognized, despite reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act in 2006, “significant progress” has been made in addressing the concerns that originally justified the VRA. Congress noted “increased numbers of registered minority voters, minority voter turnout, and minority representation.”
US Attorney General Eric Holder responded that he will defend against the challenge [press release]: “The Voting Rights Act plays a vital role in our society by ensuring that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted.”
The VRA was enacted to put an end to the systematic disenfranchisement of minority voters that ran rampant in Southern districts in the 1960s. Although the Senate extended the act an additional 25 years by an overwhelming 98-0 vote in 2006, its basis in a legacy of discrimination evidenced more than 45 years ago has gone largely unexamined. There have been several challenges to the VRA, and it has consistently been upheld as constitutional. A judge for the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] heard arguments [JURIST report] in February on a similar challenge to the VRA. Officials representing Shelby County, Alabama, together with a corps of conservative activists, argued that it is no longer constitutionally justifiable to subject Alabama and certain other states to Section 5 pre-clearance rules under the VRA. The Supreme Court [official website] upheld [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] a controversial provision of the VRA last year 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 Section 5 pre-clearance 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.