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GOP Attorneys General Target Voting Rights Act, Ask Supreme Court To Strike Down Key Section

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Several Republican state attorneys general called a key provision of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional and asked the Supreme Court to strike it down.

The officials from Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas submitted a brief in a closely watched case arguing that the law oversteps federal authority and places an unfair burden on certain states.

The case at issue involves a plan to reshape a district in Shelby County, Ala., a largely white suburb of Birmingham. The new district maps led to the sole black council member in one of the county's towns losing his seat. But the Justice Department blocked the certification of the voting results, and the town eventually redrew its districts. The black council member later re-won his seat.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, certain states and jurisdictions with a history of disenfranchising voters must seek federal approval, called preclearance, before they can change their voting rules. The law was considered one of the great achievements of the civil rights movement, as it blocked states and towns from using tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests that were meant to keep blacks from voting.

But the officials contended in their brief that the areas that must submit to preclearance -- "covered jurisdictions" -- are unfairly singled out and that many of their regions have higher minority turnout than many places that don't have to get federal approval before changing their election rules.

A covered region can "bail out" of those strictures if it shows that it hasn't discriminated against voters in the preceding 10 years, has followed the preclearance rules, has ended voting practices that prevent "equal access to the electoral process," has attempted to make registering to vote easier and has fought efforts to intimidate voters.

The brief asserts that the list of states that have to get approval is "obsolete" and "not linked to current conditions" and that the law is overriding their ability to make their own rules. It also argues that bailing out is "illusory," because no states have been able to get out of the preclearance rules. Dozens of individual counties and towns, however, have been able to successfully bail out.

The National Black Chamber Of Commerce, which is officially nonpartisan but tends to support conservative causes, weighed in with a brief of its own, also calling for the rules to be struck down.

"The government officials who are partners in this effort are people of good faith, and do not deserve to be labeled and treated as presumptive discriminators," the NBCC brief read. "Federal control of elections, through the 'preclearance' process, undermines these officials’ authority and flexibility, to the ultimate detriment of their constituents – many of them minorities. Worse, Section 5 has been abused in some instances to reinforce stereotypes regarding minority voters’ preferences and affiliations, preventing voters who do not embody these stereotypes from electing their candidates of choice."

The briefs come just days before a three-judge panel is set to rule on the constitutionality of South Carolina's voter ID law in a trial set to begin on Monday. The voter ID law was blocked by the Justice Department late last year, and South Carolina is one of nine states that must get federal preclearance.

Voter ID laws have been passed in eleven states since the 2010 midterm elections, during which Republicans picked up several statehouses. Supporters of the laws, which require that voters present ID before they cast ballots at polling centers, argue that they're necessary to prevent in-person voter fraud. All of the states that have passed voter ID laws since 2011 have Republican governors and Republican-controlled statehouses.

But studies have shown that in-person voter fraud is virtually nonexistent, and a wave of critics of the laws contend that the groups most likely to be turned away at the polls for not having valid state-issued IDs -- African Americans, Latinos, the poor and young voters -- are also groups that traditionally vote Democratic.

“According to South Carolina’s own data, minority registered voters were nearly 20 percent more likely to lack a photo ID issued by the Department of Motor Vehicles than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disfranchised by the state’s proposed requirements," said Leah Aden of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "Indeed, there are more than 80,000 registered minority citizens in South Carolina who lack a DMV-issued photo ID.”

The group also said that one in four African Americans and 16 percent of Latinos nationwide lack a government-issued ID.

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