County free to make electoral changes

Jun. 28, 2013 @ 11:31 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Tuesday morning. 

Section 4 was a formula to decide which counties and municipalities that had to seek pre-clearance for electoral decisions. Union County and other areas are named under Section 5. 

“Technically, the Court did not strike down Section 5,” Michael Crowell, a professor of public law and government and the University of North Carolina School of Government, said. “Instead, what it did was it struck down Section 4, which was the formula for saying who was subject to Section 5.”

“Theoretically, Section 5 is still on the books and Congress could go back and write a new formula saying who has to submit things,” Crowell said. 

Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his majority ruling that they only struck down the formula, not Section 5 itself and that Congress may draft a new formula based on current conditions to determine which states or counties would be named in Section 5. The formula that was struck down was based on data from 1965 and many argued it was outdated.

Crowell said he does not believe Congress will create a new formula because it is unlikely they could agree on any new formula.

As a result of the ruling, the


county does not have to seek pre-clearance approval from the U.S. Department of Justice before making any changes to elections.

“The most dramatic effect will occur for those boards that use districts for their elections the next time they redraw those districts,” Crowell said. “It also means that if the county commissioners or the school board or whoever want to change the way they’re elected, increase the size of the board, change from partisan to non-partisan...whatever they wanted to do, they can do it now without having to go through the pre-clearance process.” 

Crowell noted that if a change has a discriminatory effect, there are still parts of the Voting Rights Act where voters can challenge a change in court. 

Nathel Hailey, president of the Union County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he was disappointed by the ruling.

“I’m very disappointed,” Hailey said. “I thought we had a good case...I know we still have problems here in Union County.” 

Hailey pointed to a switch from districted elections to at-large elections as potentially harmful. 

“The other municipalities and the county itself has some big problems and to take away the voting rights act is going to be very detrimental,” Hailey said.

Hailey was concerned that an updated formula might not include Union County. 

Joseph Ellis, a political science professor at Wingate University, said this was a controversial ruling that will ignite passions. 

“When you include the racial dynamic and the legacy of the south as it pertains to race, it brings out very heated feelings,” Ellis said. “The controversy here is the controversy of our history, particularly the history of some states in the country.” 

Ellis said that Congress can act quickly if they believe something is pressing, he pointed to the bank bailouts in 2008 as an example. He said if there is enough public pressure on Congress, they could act to update the formula. 

“When you think about what Supreme Court Justices or legal scholars or lawyers do is they interpret and try to understand the law,” Ellis said. “That is what they have done here, but with incredible political and historical and social overtones.” 

Roberts wrote in his opinion that the conditions that prompted the act no longer exist. 

“At the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that,” Roberts wrote. “The question is whether the Act’s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements.”

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-NC, released a statement Tuesday expressing her disappointment.

“I am deeply discouraged that the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the landmark Voting Rights Act that exists to prevent racially discriminatory voting practices. Though our country has come a long way since this law was enacted, injustice still exists and still threatens the rights of minority voters,” Hagan wrote. “It is clear that in striking down Section 4, the Supreme Court has effectively gutted Section 5 – the heart of the law. This is a step backwards. I hope that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle will join me in fighting for honest and just elections that afford everyone an equal opportunity to participate in the democratic process.”