The South After Shelby County
In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court dismantled one of the two pillars of the Voting Rights Act: Section 5, which had barred southern jurisdictions from changing their election laws without receiving prior federal approval. But the Court left standing the VRA’s other pillar: Section 2, which prohibits racial discrimination in voting throughout the country. The burning question in the wake of Shelby County is what will happen to minority representation in the South now that Section 5 has been struck down but Section 2 lives on. This Article is the first to address this vital issue.
The Article explores the Section 2 – Section 5 gap with respect to both the procedure and the substance of voting rights litigation. Procedurally, the provisions differ in their allocation of the burden of proof, their default before a decision on the merits is reached, and their proceedings’ cost. These differences mean that numerous policies that previously would have been blocked now will go into effect. In the first substantive area to which the VRA applies, vote dilution, the provisions diverge as well. Section 2 does not extend to bizarrely shaped districts or districts whose minority populations are overly heterogeneous or below 50% in size. In contrast, Section 5 applies to all of these district types. According to my empirical analysis, more than one-third of all formerly protected districts in the South now may be eliminated with legal impunity. In the other substantive area covered by the VRA, vote denial, the provisions again vary in their scope. A mere statistical disparity between minorities and whites does not violate Section 2, but it typically does suffice for preclearance to be denied. The rash of franchise restrictions enacted by southern states in the months since Shelby County shows how much this distinction matters.
The Article also considers some of the ways in which the Section 2 – Section 5 gap could be closed. A new coverage formula could be adopted, thus restoring the prior regime. The VRA’s “bail in” provision could be amended to make it easier to subject jurisdictions to preclearance through litigation. Or Section 2 could be revised so that it resembles the stricken Section 5 more closely. Unfortunately, all of these steps face serious legal and political obstacles. A divided Congress is unlikely to pass legislation touching on sensitive issues of race and political power. Likewise, the Court may be reluctant to allow Shelby County to be circumvented. The Section 2 – Section 5 gap thus will probably persist for the foreseeable future.