The Supreme Court’s recent eight-to-one opinion more-or-less preserving the Voting Rights Act gave an Austin utility district the option to seek an exemption from the legislation’s hotly contested Section 5, which requires five states (including Tejas) and multiple counties to pre-clear any change in voting standard, practice, or procedure with the DOJ. Since Congress passsed the act in 1965 to counteract widespread discriminatory practices that essentially denied African-Americans (and Latinos!) the vote — poll taxes, spurious exams, and outright physical intimidation — it has been renewed on four occasions, including a 25-year extension in 2006 under W.
Recent efforts to overturn the law as obsolete in the age of Obama have argued that the Old South is being persecuted for old sins (take, for example, Juneteenth, which commemorates Texas’s very tardy notification of Texas slaves that they were no longer chattel). But all states are prospectively subject to Section 5 coverage.
“If a federal court finds that a jurisdiction has done something unconstitutional, they can be subject to Section 5,” says Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU.
The Court’s ruling rewards a decade or more of good behavior in small jurisdictions on a case-by-case basis, but if the Texas lege had passed the controversial Voter ID bill that derailed the 81st’s closing days, it would still be suspect until proven innocent.
“It would mean that it would have to be pre-cleared,” said McDonald. “The state would have to show that it doesn’t have an adverse affect.”