Back then, oral arguments indicated the Supreme Court was taking a skeptical view of the constitutionality of the act's Section 5, which requires certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to get federal approval of any changes to their voting laws and procedures. Oral arguments in a different case last week also strongly suggested a slim majority of the court believes now may be time to end Section 5.
Civil rights advocates in 2009 had braced for the justices to overturn the law's chief component. The vast majority of journalists, too, thought Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder -- known as NAMUDNO in the election law community -- would be the case that took down Section 5.
So when an 8-1 Supreme Court decision came down leaving Section 5 in place, advocates were pleasantly surprised. So, too, was the White House.
Unbeknownst to the public, President Barack Obama's administration had prepared a statement from Attorney General Eric Holder for the possibility that the court would strike down Section 5. Officials were so surpised the court didn’t toss out the section, in fact, that an alternative Holder statement -- praising the ruling as a “victory for voting rights in America” -- had to be written the day of the decision.
A written statement wasn't the only thing the administration did to prepare for a possible adverse court ruling in 2009. Greg Craig, the White House counsel at the time, recalled that his team "worked close with, kept track of, commented on, and met with an internal DOJ task force" on the Voting Rights Act issue. Other officials confirmed that there was a Voting Rights Working Group made up of both Justice Department and White House officials, and records show Holder was briefed by the group roughly a month before the Supreme Court decision.
"There were discussions about what would be the chain of events if Section 5 were overturned," said one official. "It is standard protocol when these issues come before the court for the White House counsel and the Justice Department to work together on worst-case scenarios."
At the time, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division was essentially rudderless, with its head not yet confirmed by the Senate. Career employees were a bit more confident than the ranking political officials that Section 5 might survive, but weren’t involved in discussions about what would happen if it didn’t.
The administration's response would largely depend on whether the court found the provision unconstitutional, or found that the 1965 formula that determined which states were covered was outdated. Since Section 5 would be nearly impossible to replace if the Supreme Court found it unconstitutional, the administration had been planning to use the decision as a spark for a broader election reform proposal, two former officials said.
Likewise, Congress had two main types of legislative responses under consideration. The first was voter registration automatization, which had support among House Democrats, but didn't gain enough traction within the Senate. The second was to simply update the data upon which the Voting Rights Act was based, which would have meant that some states subjected to federal review would have been free to change election laws as they please, while others that had been free would be scrutinized.
"We should have done it then. Instead, we just went on auto-pilot," said one Senate Democratic aide, lamenting that the party may have been able to deal with the issue while controlling both houses of Congress.
Also on HuffPost:
Florida Eliminates Early Voting On Sundays
Tensions run high in Florida, a critical battleground state that passed an election law last year with several contested provisions. One bans a decade-long practice of early voting on Sundays before the election -- a window when as <a href="http://www.postonpolitics.com/2012/03/black-dems-trying-to-change-sunday-pre-election-voting-restriction/" target="_hplink">many as 30 percent</a> of black voters have previously cast ballots after attending church in a "souls to the polls" movement. Republican lawmakers claim the provision is meant to reduce election fraud, but some black Democrats say the calculation is more sinister. "It's my feeling it was done deliberately, a premeditated design, to suppress the vote of African-Americans in this country because it's playing out all over the nation in every state. It was intentional," Florida Sen. Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) said.
Photo ID Firestorm Rocks South Carolina
The Justice Department <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/23/south-carolina-voter-id-law_n_1168162.html" target="_hplink">dealt a blow </a>to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's law requiring voters to show photo ID at the polls, arguing that it discriminated along racial lines. Haley's administration fired back <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/07/south-carolina-voter-id-law-lawsuit-justice-department_n_1260369.html" target="_hplink">with a lawsuit</a> that is expected to be decided in September. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) said earlier this year that Republicans hope to tip the outcome of the presidential election by lowering voter turnout by 1 percent in each of nine states that have passed voter ID laws, the <a href="http://westashley.patch.com/articles/democrats-combat-voter-id-law-by-organizing#video-9786253" target="_hplink">West Ashley Patch reports</a>. "I know nothing has changed yet," he said. "But I just do not trust the judiciary that we're operating under."
Disenfranchised Grandmother Sues Pennsylvania
Under Pennsylvania's new voter ID law, voters must show a photo ID issued by the state or federal government. The state-issued IDs are free, but getting one requires a birth certificate, which costs $10 in Pennsylvania. Not everyone is having an easy time navigating the new system. Earlier this month, Viviette Applewhite, 93, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/02/pennsylvania-voter-id-law-viviette-applewhite_n_1472192.html" target="_hplink">filed a lawsuit </a>with the ACLU and NAACP challenging the law. Applewhite, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, does not have a driver's license, and the state cannot find her birth certificate. She is afraid that this year will be the first since 1960 that she will be unable to vote. Applewhite's dilemma is not uncommon. Some <a href="http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/montco_memo/142671935.html" target="_hplink">700,000 Pennsylvanians</a> lack photo ID and half of them are seniors. According to <a href="http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf" target="_hplink">the Brennan Center</a>, 25 percent of voting-age black citizens have no government-issued photo ID, compared to 8 percent of white citizens.
Kansas Moves To Accelerate Proof Of Citizenship Law
The Kansas House <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/voter-id-law-kansas-proof-of-citizenship-2012_n_1500109.html" target="_hplink">voted earlier this year</a> to move up the date a proof of citizenship law goes into effect to June 15, 2012, so it will limit who can vote in the presidential election. HuffPost's John Celock <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/voter-id-law-kansas-proof-of-citizenship-2012_n_1500109.html" target="_hplink">reports</a>: <blockquote>Rep. Ann Mah (D-Topeka) said the entire idea of proof of citizenship to vote would fail in court due to it being discriminatory against married women who change their names. Mah said that women who change their name need to provide proof of marriage and citizenship and an affidavit regarding the name change.<br> Rep. Scott Schwab (R-Olathe) took issue with Mah's claims of court challenges. "I get frustrated that everyone who does not like policy says we'll end up in court," he said.</blockquote> Only 48 percent of voting-age women with access to their birth certificates have a birth certificate with a current legal name, which means that as many as 32 million American women do not have proof of citizenship with their current legal name, <a href="http://www.brennancenter.org/page/-/d/download_file_39242.pdf" target="_hplink">according to the Brennan Center</a>. The bill to change the start date <a href="http://salinapost.com/2012/05/10/kobach-concedes-kansas-voter-citizenship-plan-dead/" target="_hplink">eventually failed</a>, but will still go into effect next year.
Wisconsin Law Continues To Disenfranchise Voters After Suspension
Last year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/25/wisconsin-voter-id-law-scott-walker_n_867090.html" target="_hplink">signed a voter ID bill into law</a>, calling it a "common sense reform" that would "go a long way to protecting the integrity of elections in Wisconsin." As Walker's June 5 recall election approached, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/wisconsin-voters-id-photo-suspension_n_1401476.html" target="_hplink">two judges suspended it on the basis that it is unconstitutional</a>. Still, poll workers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/03/wisconsin-voters-id-photo-suspension_n_1401476.html" target="_hplink">reportedly asked some voters to show photo ID</a> during Wisconsin's April 2 primary, and one woman said that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/wisconsin-voter-id-polls_n_1403864.html" target="_hplink">she and her 87-year-old mother were turned away at the polls </a>because they lacked current photo IDs -- even though they were registered to vote. "We were listed on their friggin' poll list and yet we had our names highlighted," the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/04/wisconsin-voter-id-polls_n_1403864.html" target="_hplink">told the <em>Milwaukee Journal Sentinel</em></a>.