GALVESTON — Elections in Galveston County could look drastically different in the near future following Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision invalidating key parts of Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Local officials and legal experts said the decision could result in swift changes to local and state voting laws. Until Tuesday, any changes to voting laws in Texas had to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
But in a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down the formula used to determine which states required that extra federal oversight. The formula considered things like low voter turnouts, voter oppression laws and language requirements to decide what places deserved extra scrutiny when changing their voting laws to decent discrimination.
In the majority decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the country was no longer divided along the same lines it was in the 1975, the last time the formula was updated by Congress.
“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” Roberts wrote. “Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”
The court said that the government could still have oversight of challenged voting districts, but would need to determine those districts by creating a new formula with updated data.
By striking down the formula, known as Section 4, the court essentially removed Section 5, the preclearance requirement, as well.
That could open the door for a number of changes in Texas elections.
Just hours after the decision was made, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the state’s voter ID law would take effect immediately, and that the redistricting maps approved by the Legislature may also take effect without approval for the federal government.
Bill Sargeant, the county’s deputy clerk of elections, said that Abbott’s announcement would mean that the Galveston Independent School District’s special election scheduled for Aug. 27 would be the first in the county to require voters to present IDs at the voting booth.
Sargeant also said the decision he makes about where to put election sites will not have to be cleared by the Department of Justice.
On Tuesday, the Texas Department of Public Safety announced that it would begin processing applications for free voter ID cards.
Under the voting laws passed under 2011’s Senate Bill 14, voters would need to present a viable form of ID — such as a driver’s license, a concealed handgun license, a passport, a military ID or the voter ID card — to be eligible to vote
Sargeant also said that the decision he makes about where to put election sites will not have to be cleared by the department of justice.
The decision could also affect county and local voting districts, including, possibly, the ones used to determine who sits on the Galveston City Council.
In 1998, voters approved a change to the city’s charter, which would have changed the makeup of the council from six district representatives and one at-large mayor, to four district representatives, two at-large members and an at-large mayor. The 6-1 method was imposed after a lawsuit filed by a group of island residents in 1993. The lawsuit argued that the at-large system discriminated against minorities.
The move to a 4-2-1 system was denied by the Justice Department in 1998, and in appeals in 2001 and in 2011.
But it is now unclear whether previous redistricting decisions that had been blocked by the justice department could now take effect.
City attorney Dorothy Palumbo has contacted Bob Heath, the Austin lawyer who had previously argued the 1998 charter provision to the Justice Department, to review the decision. Palumbo will brief the City Council at its July 11 meeting on what steps may be taken to implement the 4-2-1 districts.
Even if the justice department cannot block voting law changes, that does not necessarily mean that there won’t be challenges from other parties, said Charles “Rocky” Rhodes, a professor at South Texas College of Law.
Rhodes said it was likely that any changes to Texas voting laws would still be challenged under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which allows aggrieved individuals to challenge voting law changes with a lawsuit.
“A political entity or voting subdivision is now able to make changes in voting laws,” Rhodes said. “That doesn’t mean that any change that they make is going to happen. There is no question in my mind that there will be a lawsuit.”