Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 (NAMUDNO) v. Holder, a U.S. Supreme Court case in which a small utility district in Texas is challenging Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is scheduled for oral argument on April 29. Section 5, reauthorized in 2006, applies to all or part of 16 states, and it applies to nine states in their entirety. It requires those states to get federal approval before changing election rules or procedures, due to past laws and practices that discriminated against and disenfranchised racial minorities. This provision is referred to as the "preclearance" provision.
The implications of the NAMUDNO case have raised the level of interest in voting districts nationwide. In California, four counties are covered by the "preclearance" provision, the benefits of which the state has already touted. California Attorney General Jerry Brown "described the Voting Rights Act as 'a safeguard against discrimination' that has worked well ever since it was enacted," according to the Daily Journal. The blog reported that, in California, "supporters of Section 5 point out that, as recently as 2002, the U.S. Justice Department questioned proposed changes to the way Chualar Union Elementary School District in Monterey County elects its school trustees." The district wanted to change from electing trustees based on geographical area to electing trustees using an at-large system.
The "Justice Department said the move could have a discriminatory impact on Hispanics because they would be less enabled to vote for their preferred candidate," according to the Daily Journal. Thus, the change did not go into effect due to the Justice Department's belief that it "was motivated, at least in part, by a discriminatory animus."
Six states covered in whole or in part by Section 5 submitted a brief supporting the continuation of the Section 5 "preclearance" provision. The brief, written by North Carolina Attorney General Roy Coope, and joined by the attorneys general from Arizona, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, and New York, says that the "preclearance requirements of Section 5 do not impose undue costs on covered jurisdictions." The brief also argues that the preclearance provision offers benefits to the covered jurisdictions by encouraging districts to "consider the views of minority voters" early in the process to change laws, helping to identify changes that have a "discriminatory effect," and preventing "costly litigation."
Other covered states, notably Alabama and Georgia, disagree with the views espoused by the aforementioned attorneys general. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley (R) says that voting rights discrimination in Alabama is an issue of the past. Thus, he directed state lawyers file a brief to that effect. Attorneys for the governor argue in the brief that Alabama only received two rejections from 1996-2005, out of more than 3,000 instances in which they sought clearance from the Justice Department. This, however, does not indicate that Alabama officials would not disenfranchise voters if they knew that there was no federal government oversight.
According to the Birmingham News, Riley said in the brief that "Congress wrongly equated Alabama's modern government, and its people, with their Jim Crow ancestors." Riley also says in the brief that "while several states moved the dates of their 2008 presidential primaries without needing permission from the federal government, it took Alabama four months to do so because of the Voting Rights Act."
The NAMUDNO case also impacts nonprofit organizations. The case affects constituents often served by these groups. Nonprofits have been instrumental in helping to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised. The OMB Watch report, How Nonprofits Helped America Vote: 2008, illustrates the efforts that nonprofits have taken to protect the electoral process and demonstrates the importance of continued nonprofit voter engagement.
To safeguard the rights of the constituents it serves, the nonprofit NAACP filed a merits brief. Other nonprofits, including the Constitutional Accountability Center, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Brennan Center for Justice, filed amicus briefs in the case.