The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

June 26, 2013

Officials weigh in on court voter rights decision

From staff reports
The News Courier

— Limestone County voting officials are unsure how they will be affected by Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision, which will eliminate the need for some states to get approval from the Justice Department before making any election changes.

Unless Congress comes up with a new formula, the Court’s 5-4 decision will end the advance approval requirement that has been used since 1965 to open up polling places to minority voters in mostly southern states, including Alabama.

President Barack Obama, the nation's first black chief executive, issued a statement saying he was “deeply disappointed” with the Court’s 5-4 ruling. He urged Congress to act swiftly to create a new formula. 

Since the middle ‘60s, Alabama has been one of nine states that had to clear all changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department. The requirement was designed to prevent discrimination against black voters.

In the Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, No. 12-96, the Court ruled that Congress’s 2006 reauthorization of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Section 4 set a formula for determining which jurisdictions would be “covered” and, thus, require preclearance from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting laws.

Lee Liveoak, of the Limestone Board of Voter Registrars, said Tuesday he is unsure how the Court’s ruling would affect procedures in his office. He said he would wait to see if Congress takes action.

State reaction

In Alabama, some leaders lauded the Court’s decision and some scorned it.

State Attorney General Luther Strange called the ruling “an important victory for the fundamental constitutional principle that all states enjoy equal sovereignty.”

“Alabama will only be subject to the preclearance process if Congress adopts a new coverage formula that includes Alabama,” Strange said. “I do not believe Alabama should be included under any new coverage formula that Congress might adopt. As the Court rightly points out, minority participation in voting is in fact higher in Alabama and many other covered jurisdictions than it is in many non-covered jurisdictions. ” 

The Madison County Democrats said the ruling creates “a serious voting crisis” in both the state and the country.

Clete Wetli, chairman of the Madison County Democratic Party, called the decision, “a slap in the face to those who have ever fought for Civil Rights.”

He said the Party is deeply disappointed in this decision, which effectively guts the law and relies on a highly partisan Congress to create new formulas to prevent voters from being disenfranchised.

“This issue should not be about partisanship, but conservatives have done their best to make voting rights controversial by claiming that there is widespread voter fraud when there is no truth to that claim,” he said. “Especially in Alabama, where Republicans have been working overtime to disenfranchise voters by enacting ID laws that are reminiscent of poll taxes, this ruling is a major step backward.”

Alabama Secretary of State Beth Chapman welcomed the change.

“We are not the same state we were decades ago and I am glad that the majority of the Supreme Court recognizes that fact,” Chapman said. “Alabama has made great progress in our elections process.”

She said there is still a provision in the Voting Rights Act in which issues of discrimination can be prosecuted.

“If there is a time or circumstance where a voter feels there has been any discrimination regarding the elections process, then Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act will provide a way for that case to be heard as it should,” she said.

Without Justice Department oversight, however, some believe those who experience voter discrimination would have to bring lawsuits as a remedy, which would be time consuming and costly.