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Election Laws Likely To Change Without Voting Rights Act


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

By next year, Mississippi voters may be required to show photo ID at the polls. In Texas, a similar voter ID bill takes effect immediately. And Virginia's governor says their voter ID law is now in the limbo.

Up until this week, the 1965 Voting Rights Act required these states - and a handful of others with a history of discrimination - to seek federal approval before changing any voter laws. It's a process called pre-clearance. But this week, the Supreme Court struck down that provision.

The Justice Department used it to go after what it saw as discriminatory voter ID policies, redistricting maps and other practices. So what happens now? What does it mean for Justice Department officials in pursuing these cases?

For more, we turn to Bill Yeomans of the Washington College of Law at American University. Mr. Yeomans is a former acting assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Welcome to the program.

BILL YEOMANS: It's good to be here. Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So up until this point, how did this pre-clearance formula help enforcement of the voting rights law? What did it mean for your day-to-day job in the Justice Department?

YEOMANS: Well the pre-clearance requirement, which is contained in Section 5 of the act, is quite simply one of the most effective laws ever passed by Congress. And what it required was that jurisdictions that were covered under the act report every election change to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance and no election change that was discriminatory could go into effect. That's now gone, and it means that enforcement of the voting rights laws depend on the Department of Justice and private litigants going out and finding election changes. And that will be easy for the big ones. So for redistricting and major changes, they'll be visible. For smaller changes, it's going to be much more difficult for things like changing the location of a polling place or changing the hours of a registrar's office. Those things simply aren't going to surface the way they used to.

CORNISH: What does this ruling mean for the Justice Department itself and its work? I mean, are there people who don't have a whole lot to do anymore or, you know, how does it affect the day-to-day running of the place?

YEOMANS: Well, I think everybody will still be busy. And, in fact, people may be busier than ever. As I've said, Section 5 was a terrifically efficient way to enforce the law. And to achieve anything close to the same level of enforcement is going to require a great deal more resources.

CORNISH: And so how would that job be done? Is that scanning the papers every day? Is that calling up statehouses?

YEOMANS: Yeah. It's being in touch with people who might have information about violations, maintaining contacts around the country. It's a much more labor-intensive undertaking.

CORNISH: But, you know, lots of people might hear this and think, number one, this is how Justice had to deal with all the other states, the ones that didn't have to go through pre-clearance. And second of all, maybe it's better that the Justice Department go after people who actually break the law rather than preemptively accusing people of doing as such.

YEOMANS: Well, and in response to that, I would say, first of all, that discrimination in voting was very much concentrated in the covered jurisdictions. Now, obviously, other jurisdictions can engage in discrimination. But the kind of entrenched discrimination that existed primarily in the Deep South did not exist in the rest of the country.

I think the problem with election law is unique. We do have this extraordinary history of discrimination, and we know that the discrimination can take place in a variety of forms and at a very low level because we - in this country, our elections are run primarily at a very local level. And so by the time people find out about election law changes that may have a discriminatory impact, it can be too late to pursue an effective remedy.

CORNISH: Now, Mr. Yeomans, you've spent some time with the Senate, I believe, working for the late Senator Kennedy. And from what you've seen in Congress, is there an appetite to actually rewrite this law?

YEOMANS: Yeah. It remains to be seen, I think. I think it's quite possible that proponents will be able to build a bipartisan coalition to move forward. After all, we're talking about the right to vote, which is our most fundamental right. And I think that principle crosses party lines.

CORNISH: Bill Yeomans, thank you so much for speaking with me.

YEOMANS: It's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Bill Yeomans spent 25 years at the Department of Justice. He's now a fellow in law and government at the American University Washington College of Law. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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