Judge Dismisses Challenge To Election Monitoring

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A federal judge in Washington, D.C. has upheld a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Shelby County, Ala., had sued to get out from under requirements that it send all of its election changes to the federal government for pre-approval to protect the interest of minority voters. A judge threw out the lawsuit saying that Congress had acted within its power under the Constitution.

DAVID GREENE, host: Here in Washington, a federal judge has upheld a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that's been under challenge from prominent conservatives. Shelby County, Alabama challenged the law's requirement that any changes to voting procedures be pre-approved by the federal government. Now lawyers for the county say they'll appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON: More than 45 years ago, Congress decided it had to protect black people who were disenfranchised by poll taxes and other barriers. The result was the Voting Rights Act, one of the cornerstones of the civil rights movement. Section Five of the law requires states like Alabama, with a history of discrimination, to get advance approval from the U.S. Justice Department before they make any changes to their election rules.

But as the years have passed, some states have bristled at the federal oversight. And three separate lawsuits, including the one filed by Shelby County, Alabama, are seeking to overturn that part of the law. Rick Hasen of the University of California at Irvine says all of those cases involve one critical question.

RICK HASEN: Whether or not there's still enough evidence of unconstitutional conduct by the states to justify the portion of the Voting Rights Act that requires these covered jurisdictions to get permission before they change any of their voting rules.

JOHNSON: The opinion by Judge John Bates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, carefully traces the history of the law. The judge mentions a series of hearings in Congress which ultimately voted to re-authorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

The judge pointed out that it's true, notorious opponents of civil rights, such as the Alabama public safety commissioner Bull Connor, might be dead. But the judge said modern-day lawmakers had clearly decided voters in Alabama and more than a dozen other states still needed and deserved protection from discrimination.

Edward Blum directs the Project on Fair Representation, a non-profit group that helped Shelby County with resources to bring a lawsuit.

EDWARD BLUM: It makes no sense for Texas and Alabama to be required go to the Justice Department to pre-clear voting changes, but not Arkansas and Oklahoma.

JOHNSON: Blum says he's willing to take the Alabama case all the way up to the nation's highest court.

BLUM: Congress never made a finding that racial discrimination still exists in these covered jurisdictions and not outside of these covered jurisdictions, so that's why we think the law is unconstitutional in and of itself.

JOHNSON: A spokeswoman for the Justice Department says the department will keep on defending any and all constitutional challenges to the law, including a lawsuit filed recently by the Republican attorney general of Arizona. That case has been assigned to the same judge who threw out the Shelby County challenge.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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