Right-Wing Media Tout New Conspiracy Over DOJ's Involvement In Voting Rights Act Bailouts

Blog ››› ››› SERGIO MUNOZ

Opponents of effective voting rights enforcement have taken to right-wing media outlets to allege that the Department of Justice engaged in "collusive," "illegal," and "crooked" acts for its role in the determination of whether a California county and the state of New Hampshire qualify to opt-out of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). But these allegations of "trickery," most recently pushed by National Review Online contributor Hans von Spakovsky, ignore that DOJ is complying with the text of the VRA as interpreted by the courts.

Two former Bush administration DOJ officials have accused the department of acting improperly in the successful removal of Merced County, California, from the voter protection requirements of Section 5 and the ongoing consideration of such an opt-out for New Hampshire. Writing on the right-wing blog PJ Media, J. Christian Adams argued that in the Merced case DOJ had "ignore[d] the law" and "conned" a federal court as part of an "elaborate legal ruse" to preserve the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court will consider a claim that Section 5 is unconstitutional. Continuing this attack, von Spakovsky accused the DOJ in the National Review Online of similar "deception" and "manipulation" of the VRA in its considerations of the New Hampshire case, again in order to "manipulate the Supreme Court in the Shelby case." A conservative advocacy group immediately adopted their argument and filed a motion to intervene in the New Hampshire case, as was predicted by election law expert and law professor Rick Hasen:

I expect this argument to get a lot of play.

The great irony here, for those who don't follow this issue closely, is that you have people who oppose section 5 of the VRA complaining that DOJ is making it too easy for those jurisdictions subject to its preclearance provision to escape from the Act's coverage.

Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Southern jurisdictions who illegally denied citizens the right to vote during the Jim Crow era - and subsequent jurisdictions that engaged in similar conduct - are forbidden from changing covered election practices without federal approval. There is a legal opt-out to Section 5, by which jurisdictions can "bailout" of the "preclearance" requirements by proving they are no longer breaking the law. To encourage successful bailouts, Congress increasingly "liberalized" this process. Similarly, the Supreme Court in its last VRA case -NAMUDNO v. Holder - "rewrote" the bailout requirements to encourage even more use of the process.

Nevertheless, right-wing activists have successfully placed the Shelby case before the Supreme Court, which could release all covered jurisdictions if Section 5 is declared unconstitutional. Adams and von Spakovsky, who quote anonymous sources and internal DOJ documents to support their arguments, argue that DOJ has "designed" a "legal strategy" to avoid this outcome by aggressively following NAMUDNO.

Beyond the unremarkable fact that the DOJ - the defendant in Shelby - would prefer not to both lose the case and part of the most effective civil rights law in history, Adams and von Spakovsky misrepresent the bailout cases to claim neither Merced nor New Hampshire qualify. Adams complains that the extensive DOJ investigation of Merced's bailout request revealed that the county should have submitted certain past election changes for preclearance and because the county "settled" a Section 5 case, it was ineligible for bailout. But Merced's counsel responded to Adams' accusations, pointing out that "case law under Section 5...holds that the preclearance obligation can be retroactively satisfied":

Mr. Adams is simply incorrect about the Lopez litigation.  There was no "settlement"; the County won that lawsuit outright, having summary judgment granted in its favor.  See Lopez v. Merced County, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 3941 (E.D. Cal. Jan. 16, 2008).  Thus, the County was not disqualified from bailout by virtue of the provision relating to consent decrees entered within the last 10 years.  42 U.S.C. § 1973b(a)(1)(B).

[R]egarding the submission of a number of historical voting changes for preclearance in connection with the bailout, there are a number of points to be made:


Section 5 itself provides that oversights in preclearance compliance may be forgiven in a bailout action if they were "were trivial, were promptly corrected, and were not repeated."  42 U.S.C. § 1973b(a)(3). In other words, Mr. Adams's implication that Section 5 has a "no tolerance" standard--and that the Attorney General is therefore ignoring the command of Congress--is refuted by the text of Section 5 itself.


"[P]ost hoc" preclearances are typical in connection with bailout, seriously undermining the notion that such an approach is part of a vast conspiracy to save Section 5.

Adams subsequently admitted "retroactive" preclearance was possible.

Von Spakovsky repeated Adams' claim that states seeking bailouts must not have "failed to submit for preclearance...voting changes they have made" over the past ten years, without acknowledging the retroactive preclearance that may occur for New Hampshire. Von Spakovsky used this misleading point as proof that New Hampshire is actually less qualified than Shelby County for a bailout, because New Hampshire allegedly has more unsubmitted preclearance requests than Shelby County did. But the footnote from the Shelby case on appeal that von Spakovsky partially quoted for the uncontroversial rule that unprecleared voting changes - absent retroactive approval - preclude bailout, explicitly notes that Shelby County's primary problem was DOJ's objection:

Although the Court did not permit discovery into the question of Shelby County's bailout-eligibility, it is clear -- based on undisputed facts in the record -- that Shelby County is not eligible for bailout. Under Section 4(a)(1)(E), a jurisdiction is only eligible for bailout if, during the ten years preceding its bailout request, "the Attorney General has not interposed any objection...with respect to any submission by or on behalf of the plaintiff or any governmental unit within its territory."  42 U.S.C. § 1973b(a)(1)(E).  The Attorney General concedes that, in 2008, he interposed an objection [.]

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