SCOTUS Tackles Voting Rights

Texas-based Republican consultant Allen Blakemore is closely watching the SCOTUS debate over a section of the Voting Rights Act.

Texas-based Republican consultant Allen Blakemore is closely watching the SCOTUS debate over a section of the Voting Rights Act. He thinks dumping Section 5 of the Act is long overdue and he’s rooting for the high court’s conservative voices to prevail on this one.The court heard oral arguments Wednesday challenging Section 5 of the act, which mandates federal approval for certain states and localities before any change in voting procedures—everything from switching the location of a polling place to changing the date of an election. The provision targets nine states with a history of discrimination or suppression of minority voting rights including Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. The provision also applies to parts of seven other states. “These states make thousands of little changes every year,” says Blakemore, “and we have to get [Justice Department] approval to do anything and everything.” He insists the provision is onerous for states and localities, particularly for local election officials. “No one is saying we want to scrap the Voting Rights Act,” he says. “It’s the pre-clearance process people have a problem with.”One of Blakemore’s clients is Republican Beverly Kaufman. She’s the clerk in Harris County—the largest county in Texas. “This particular aspect [of the Voting Rights Act] isn’t necessary any longer,” she says. “It’s just a self-defeating bureaucratic exercise.” The biggest problem, say some political consultants with objections to Section 5, is that the provision can be abused and used as a campaign tactic. “It’s more of a strategy issue for us than anything else,” says South Carolina GOP consultant Rod Shealy. “A campaign can raise a pre-clearance issue as a strategy to delay or disrupt an election.”Or, says Kaufman, it can be a ploy to bolster turnout. “People raise flags just to get the media attention,” she insists, “and that helps turnout.” Longtime Democratic consultant Craig Varoga rejects that suggestion and says it's often the exact opposite for Democratic consultants. "We always thought that any confusion about voting rights would scare people away from the polls rather than drive them there."And Varoga is far from convinced that the provision is no longer needed. “Based on my first-hand knowledge of how some officials operate,” he says, “I would say it still needs to be policed by the Justice Department.”Varoga recounts a non-partisan race he worked some years ago where he was urged by a campaign volunteer to engage in voter suppression efforts—a suggestion Varoga rejected out of hand. But Varoga notes, the campaign volunteer went on to become an elected official with responsibility over voter registration and state elections in Texas. By all accounts the Supreme Court is headed for a 5 to 4 decision on this one, with Justice Anthony Kennedy the likely swing vote. SCOTUSblog has a full breakdown of Wednesday's oral arguments and ventures a guess on where the court may be heading.Shane D'Aprile is senior editor at Politics magazine.

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