Rock the vote

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments from a Texas municipality that says they no longer need federal oversight to ensure racially fair elections.

Back in 2004, Sean âÄúDiddyâÄù Combs and his nonprofit group Citizen Change had a fun little catchphrase to encourage young folks to get out and exercise the franchise in the upcoming presidential election. Maybe you remember the subtle-yet-charmingly effective motto, âÄúVote or Die.âÄù Sure, Puffy got lampooned by everyone from Jon Stewart to South Park for his hyperbolic ways, and in the end itâÄôs probably safe to say that young voters failed his preferred candidate that fateful November day, but the fact remains, many people, Diddy included, care a lot about voting in this country. Heck, here in Minnesota weâÄôre probably going to spend the better part of our summer without an official U.S. senator representing us in D.C., largely because nobody really knows which votes are supposed to count, and weâÄôve got politicians willing to spend millions to try to sort the whole mess out. If you look back, our federal government has a pretty mixed history of protecting voter rights, and over the course of our nationâÄôs existence weâÄôve had to tweak a few things to arrive at our current state of suffrage. We had to amend our Constitution to ensure that non-white men, women, poor people, and 18- to 21-year-old adults all were guaranteed the right to cast a ballot, via the 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, respectively. In addition to these constitution-modifying leaps, many federal statutes have been passed to protect your right to vote. One of these federal laws is the National Voting Rights Act , first passed in 1965. Essentially, the act prohibited state and local governments from instituting a âÄúqualification or prerequisite to voting âĦ in a manner which results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.âÄù Congress had enacted the law to squelch the increasing tendency of certain (mostly southern) states to circumvent the 15th Amendment by using devices such as literacy tests to prevent otherwise qualified voters from hitting the polls. In addition, the act established fairly extensive federal oversight within designated problem areas, and required that states with a history of discriminatory voting practices obtain the approval of the Department of Justice before carrying out any changes affecting voting within that particular district. The act, originally signed by Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, was renewed for a 25-year extension by Republican President George W. Bush in 2006 . The law has plenty of critics, and some affected states have argued that forcing them to seek federal permission for any changes in how they run their elections is both draconian on the part of the federal government and a lasting badge of shame from the distant discriminatory past. âÄúIf you move a polling place from the Baptist church to the Methodist church, youâÄôve got to go through the Justice Department,âÄù said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., in a 2006 Washington Post story about the act. The reason that any of this still matters is that the constitutionality of the National Voting Rights Act is set to be argued before the Supreme Court on Wednesday. The challenge is being brought by the creatively titled Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One, a âÄúmunicipal utility district created under Texas law around 1987 to perform certain governmental functionsâÄù in the state of Texas, according to documents filed with the Court. The entire state of Texas, including its municipalities, falls under the purview of the National Voting Rights Act. The districtâÄôs court brief also states that throughout its entire history, it has complied with the statutory requirements, acquired permission from the Department of Justice before any changes in its election system and never had any complaints or lawsuits filed against it for its Election Day procedures. And itâÄôs tired of having to ask permission for everything it does. The district is seeking one of two options to escape the act: either a âÄúbailout,âÄù whereby the district would be exempted from the act, or a ruling that sections of the law pertaining to the district are unconstitutional because it represents an overextension of CongressâÄôs power. The city has been unsuccessful in seeking a bailout so far because courts have been unwilling to free the district from the requirements of the act when the state of Texas remains under the statute. In the event the bailout option fails, the district still hopes that the entire section of the statute requiring it to seek approval for any electoral changes is unconstitutional because they say it is no longer necessary for the federal government to exercise such extensive oversight into local or state election activities. Citing the election of President Barack Obama and dramatic increases in the registration, voter turnout and elected representation among various racial minority groups, the district argues that the law is âÄúbased on an illegitimate presumption of resolute intransigence and endemic discriminatory animus âÄî [and] continues to impose an unparalleled federal intrusion on the contemporary generation in certain parts of the country.âÄù ThatâÄôs lawyer-speak for âÄúLeave us alone, weâÄôve learned our lesson, thanks.âÄù The government, on the other hand, argues that the âÄúvestiges of discrimination in voting continue to exist,âÄù and thus the law is necessary to protect the voting rights of minorities in traditionally hostile regions. Consider, as the Court must Wednesday, how far our nation has come since 1965. Is it far enough? Can we trust local government to protect the rights of its minority voters, or must the strong hand of the federal government continue to oversee the entire process? Jake Parsley welcomes comments at [email protected]