February 09, 2006

Senator Obama on Section 5 Renewal

Yesterday I participated in the kickoff event for the new AEI-Brookings Election Reform Project. I think this promises to be a very important program to bring together academics, advocates and policymakers who are interested in a serious look at election reform.

To me, the highlight of the event was the give and take among participants. (When the video link is available, I'll post it.) For example, voting rights attorney David Becker questioned AU's Bob Pastor about the use of the Carter-Baker report as cover for enacting certain voter i.d. programs in various states. I pushed Vermont's Secretary of State (and new president of NASS) Deborah Markowitz on NASS's unfortunate resolution last year calling on the US Election Assistance Commission to be disbanded. But the most interesting exchange of all came in Sen. Obama's response to Bruce Cain's questions about section 5 renewal and whether Congress should reverse the Bossier Parish cases. Here is an excerpt from the uncorrected transcript of the Senator's remarks (my emphasis):

    QUESTION: Bruce Cain, director of the UC Washington Center.
    Let's go back to the Voting Rights renewal question and let's stay in the narrow parameters of -- every time it's been renewed, provisions have been changed. Bailout provisions usually get changed. And there's a lot of unhappiness in the civil rights community about the Bossier II decision and the shift back to the strict retrogressive standard.
    Where do you see the debate in terms of the modifications of the Voting Rights Act? It doesn't seem as though renewing the Voting Rights Act itself is so much an issue as the terms on which it's going to be renewed. Where do you see the civil rights community looking for changes and what do you think are the best kinds of changes to make?
    SENATOR OBAMA: Well, that's a big question. You've got to separate out what would be desirable from what is even remotely possible. Let me answer this way. I do think America has changed in some respects. So, you know, the Voting Rights Act has become this tangle of provisions, some of which made perfect sense back in 1965, some of which probably are less relevant. And then there's the absence of certain provisions that are critically relevant now that have never really been discussed.
    I think that the single most important aspect of Voting Rights Act renewal is not just raw ballot access--although I think that's absolutely critical--but also making sure that we have a Justice Department that is empowered anywhere in the country--not just in areas that historically had repressed voters, but anywhere in the country that, if there is a minority group that is vulnerable, that the Justice Department is empowered to go in and look and investigate and see whether or not the voting practices and procedures that have been set up are further suppressing these voters.
    And I think that part of the problem that we have right now is that the machinery that we've got identifies certain pockets of the country in which they've got to check off with a three-judge panel or the Justice Department, but it's not supple enough or quick enough to target situations, such as in Ohio, where I do think that there were some egregious practices taking place. The Justice Department did not feel it had a mandate or was required to enforce some of these provisions.
    I guess another way of saying it is, the biggest problem I see with the Voting Rights Act is a lack of intentional effort on the part of the Justice Department to enforce those provisions that are there.
    Now, we've got some complicated questions about majority/minority districts and Section 2(b) and, you know, whether or not influence districts should be included changes and redistricting. I think the whole redistricting question is a huge complicated theoretical problem and I'm hoping that the Supreme Court provides some guidance, having taken this case. But I actually think that the biggest problem with the Voting Rights Act right now is that the Voting Rights Division at the Justice Department feels disempowered and is-- I hear reports consistently from those who are career lawyers for the Voting Rights Division that nobody upstairs really cares or is encouraging them to get involved. And I don't know that a reauthorization or a law changes that. That has to do with whether or not this is the priority of an administration or not.
    I know that wasn't as pin-pointed as I would have liked, but that's probably the best I can do at the moment.

These are very interesting remarks. Is it possible that a change in the targeting provisions for Section 5 will be considered by Senate Democrats? What does this say about whether Congress can make the record that the current targeting provisions are constitutional in targeting the parts of the country with the greatest problems in securing minority voting rights?

Posted by Rick Hasen at February 9, 2006 09:19 AM