Florida Counties No Longer Need Federal Preclearance to Change Voting Laws
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Shelby County, located in Alabama (one of the states subject to the preclearance requirement), brought suit, arguing that while the 15th Amendment gives Congress authority to enact “appropriate” legislation for the enforcement of racial minorities’ voting rights, mandatory preclearance is no longer appropriate because federal designation as a jurisdiction with a “history” of discriminatory practices is based on conditions that existed in the 1960s or 1970s and do not reflect present-day circumstances.
In a historic ruling that signals an end to more than 40 years of federal elections law, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that require certain states and other jurisdictions to get federal preclearance before changing their voting laws.
“[H]istory did not end in 1965. By the time the Act was reauthorized in 2006, there had been 40 more years of it,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his opinion accompanying the ruling, which was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito. “In assessing the current need for a preclearance system that treats states differently from one another today, that history cannot be ignored.”
The Voting Rights Act (VRA) requires jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices (e.g., literacy tests) and relatively low voter turnout to apply for preclearance from either the United States attorney general or the D.C. district court before making any changes to their voting laws. Among the nine states, dozens of counties, and two cities covered by this provision are five Florida counties: Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Monroe.
Calling preclearance an “extraordinary measure to address an extraordinary problem” and “a drastic departure from basic principles of federalism,” the high court agreed.
“During [the last 40-plus years], largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers,” Roberts wrote. “And yet the coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”
The court went on to declare that the 15th Amendment might still permit Congress to impose preclearance, but only after drawing up new criteria based on up-to-date data: “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”
When the VRA was passed in 1965, the preclearance requirement was set to expire after five years, but had been reauthorized several times since 1970. In 2006, the Act was reauthorized for an additional 25 years, but the preclearance formula was still based on conditions that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Florida Department of State did not return requests for comment before this story went to press.
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