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A Setback for Local Democracy

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Spencer Overton

The Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder is a setback for democracy — especially at the local level.

Overwhelming evidence shows that too many politicians continue to win elections by unfairly manipulating election rules based on how voters look or talk. The Court’s decision makes this problem worse. The biggest problem will be the manipulation of election rules for local offices that are often non-partisan and escape national attention.

In Nueces County, Texas, for example, the rapidly growing Latino community surpassed 56 percent of the county’s population, and in response, county officials gerrymandered county commission election districts to weaken the Latino vote.

Without Section 5 protections to block this type of racial manipulation, Americans in areas like Nueces County will be vulnerable to unfair election changes. Voters often lack the thousands and sometimes millions of dollars required to bring a lawsuit to stop unfair changes. Even aside from expense, lawsuits are not the best tools to protect voting rights. Lawsuits can take years, and too often, do not stop unfair voting rules before they are used in elections.

Though we tend to focus more on national politics, the manipulation of local election rules has significant consequences. County commissioners, city and town council members, school board members, sheriffs and other elected local officials make important decisions related to education, criminal justice, human services and economic opportunity that shape our daily lives.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress should work together to address these problems and modernize the Voting Rights Act. Specifically, Congress should: (1) update the Act’s preclearance and litigation provisions; and (2) require that states and localities disclose new voting rules and their effects on voters.

Spencer Overton is a Professor of Law at GW Law School and a Senior Fellow at Demos. He is the author of the book Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression. He formerly served as the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Legal Policy at the Department of Justice. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerOverton.

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