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Arizona sues to overturn parts of the Voting Rights Act

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a law passed under historic circumstances as part of an effort to combat institutionalized discrimination against racial minorities.

The lawsuit challenges the law on the grounds that the federal government did not have the authority to require certain states to obtain U.S. Justice Department approval before changing their electoral laws.

As ThinkProgress’ Ian Millhiser notes, the lawsuit comes two years after the Supreme Court ruled that the municipalities whose voting laws need to be “precleared” under Section 5 of the Act would have the option to “bail out” of the law by demonstrating that they had stopped racially discriminating and would not do so again in the future.

Nevertheless, Horne said in a statement at the time of filing the lawsuit that the provisions of the Act requiring preclearance “are either archaic, not based in fact, or subject to completely subjective enforcement based on the whim of federal authorities.”

Horne argued that Arizona’s burden under the law is arbitrary, based partly on the fact that Arizona was only included in the list of states requiring preclearance because of a 1975 amendment to the Act protecting “language minorities.” Arizona, with its large Hispanic population, did not have bilingual ballots until 1974, and so was considered at risk of violating the new requirement.

All the other states that need preclearance are Southern, although some municipalities in non-Southern states are also required to seek preclearance.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney General Erc Holder said, “The Voting Rights Act plays a vital role in our society by ensuring that every American has the right to vote and to have that vote counted… the Department of Justice will vigorously defend the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act in this case, as it has done successfully in the past.”

Arizona’s lawsuit against the Voting Rights Act, the first ever by a state government, comes as a slew of Republican-controlled legislatures face the hurdle of Justice Department preclearance for newly passed electoral reforms.

In South Carolina, the ACLU and other groups have asked Holder to deny preclearance for a new voter I.D. law. The groups argue that the law discriminates against African-Americans because they are less likely to have the forms of identification required under the law when exercising their voting rights. Kansas, a state that passed a similar law this year, was not required to seek preclearance because it is not one of the original states deemed at risk of racially discriminating.

This year’s post-Census redistricting efforts are also increasing the salience of Section 5. One example is Texas, which is facing multiple federal court challenges alleging minority underrepresentation in its new redistricting maps.

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