McKinney professor testifies on voting case’s lasting effects

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in a key voting rights case necessitates the Department of Justice take corrective action before the 2020 census, an Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law professor testified.

Michael J. Pitts appeared Feb. 2 before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to make the case for a Department of Justice-created “Local Redistricting Taskforce” to monitor local redistricting efforts.

By a 5-4 vote, the high court’s landmark decision in Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 2 (2013), declared two key sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be unconstitutional.

One of those was Section 5, which mandated that the federal government grant preclearance to certain jurisdictions before they could make changes to their voting laws.

Pitts said the main impact of this section was on local redistricting, which happens every 10 years after the most recent census. Because this part of the law was struck down, those local governments would no longer be required to have federal permission to redraw their lines.

“Without Section 5 there is no more automatic level of review,” he said. “The Justice Department provided the greatest protection in places that were more out of the way.”

Pitts said swift action must be taken now before the 2020 census begins. He said that since the Supreme Court’s decision came after the most recent census in 2010, this would be the first chance for these local governments to act without the previous level of oversight.

“Do they decide to backtrack and retrogress the ability of minority voters to elect their candidates of choice? … It remains to be seen,” he said. “Minorities are most underrepresented at the local level of government.”

Since the decision, Democrats in House of Representatives have tried and failed to restore oversight.

However, Pitts said he didn’t see the need to enact new legislation as the DOJ already has the authority to act. “It conducts investigations all the time into potential voting rights violations,” he said.

Pitts’ scholarly work at McKinney focuses on the law of democracy, particularly voting rights and election administration. His work has been cited in law reviews, political science journals, briefs, federal and state judicial opinions, and congressional testimony.

Established in 1957, the commission is an independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with advising the president and Congress on civil rights matters and issuing an annual federal civil rights enforcement report.

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