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Changes to the Voting Rights Act: What Texans Need to Know

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued itssecond big decision of the week, striking down part of the Voting Rights Act. Supporters praised the decision, calling it a step forward in eliminating antiquated aspects of the law. Opponents of the decision say it makes it easier to discriminate against minorities.

KUT breaks down the decision and what it means for the Lone Star State.

What is the Voting Rights Act?

Signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, the Voting Rights Act sought to end voter discrimination in response to widespread disenfranchisement of African-American voters. The law targeted areas in the South known to discriminate against black voters, requiring them to secure federal approval of elections and any election related laws. Since 1965, Congress has voted  multiple times to renew the Voting Rights Act. The last time was in 2006.

So what did the Supreme Court decide?

The Court ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional — the section of the Voting Rights Act that requires nine states and some cities and counties to get approval to make changes to their election laws. It’s also known as ‘preclearance.’ Section Four is the formula that determines which states need that ‘preclearance.’ In the court’s opinion, that formula is outdated. It said:

"Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960's and early 1970's. But such tests have been banned for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in covered States have risen dramatically."

The court noted that voter discrimination still exists across the country, but urged that if the government wanted to continue protecting voters from such discrimination, Congress should devise a new formula. Without that formula, it's unclear which states need preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5? What’s that?

Section 5 is the part of the law that requires states to receive preclearance to change election laws. If there’s no formula that decides which states need preclearance, the law is unenforceable.

Here's the bottom line: 

The  federal government legally has the right to oversee state election laws, but without a formula in place to decide which states that oversight applies to, there are no specifications as to which states or parts of states the government can oversee. In order to enforce that federal oversight, Congress needs to approve a new formula. However, experts don't expect Congress to pass legislation resolving that issue.

So what does this mean for Texas?

Since there’s no longer a formula in place to decide which states need preclearance from the federal government, Texas is free to make any changes to its election law. The two areas that will directly affect are voter identification and redistricting. 

Voter ID? I thought that law was blocked?

It was. In 2012, Texas tried to implement a law requiring voters to show identification at the ballot box, but the federal government blocked the law because it said it discriminated against minorities. Now that the federal government cannot enforce Section 5, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced Tuesday the Voter ID law is in effect.   

Are opponents to the Voter ID law planning to do anything now that it’s put in place?

Civil rights groups will most likely challenge the voter ID law in court. They’re expected to argue a judge in Washington D.C.  ruled the law intentionally tried to discourage minorities from voting. Their first step is to file an injunction against the law before the November election.  

And what does this mean for redistricting?

Right now, it’s bit murky. In the past, Texas has had to gain federal approval to implement redrawn congressional and legislative district maps. Now that approval isn’t required. This week, Governor Rick Perry signed congressional and legislative maps approved by the legislature in the first special session. 

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