WASHINGTON — The Justice Department stayed silent when Indiana and Washington state strengthened their voter identification rules. But when Georgia and Texas lawmakers wanted to do the same, they needed federal approval.
Now, this different treatment for different states will face a test at the Supreme Court. Justices on Wednesday will consider whether it's time to dismantle a key plank of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The entire law is not at risk of repeal. Instead, the case arising out of Shelby County, Ala., centers primarily on two sections.
The tool is called preclearance. Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, designated states and jurisdictions must secure Justice Department approval before they change any voting practice or procedure.
A related section provides the formula for determining which political jurisdictions must meet the preclearance requirements.
Nine states are currently covered in their entirety: Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia. Selected jurisdictions of an additional seven states are also covered, including parts of California, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York and South Dakota. The law, though revised several times since 1965, still pegs preclearance coverage in part to voting turnout or registration in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 elections.
"The question is whether Congress needs to update this," said Carrie Severino, chief counsel of the conservative Judicial Crisis Network.