Can escape clause save voting rights provision?


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration and civil rights groups are defending a key section of the landmark voting rights law at the Supreme Court by pointing reformed state, county and local governments to an escape hatch from the law’s strictest provision.

The Voting Rights Act requires places with a history of voting discrimination to get approval from Washington before making any election-related changes.

But the law allows governments that have changed their ways to get out from under this humbling need to get permission through a “bailout provision.” Nearly 250 counties and local jurisdictions have done so, and thousands more could be eligible.

The viability of the bailout option could play an outsized role in the Supreme Court’s consideration of a challenge to the law’s prior approval provision, with arguments Wednesday.

Opponents of the law say they no longer should be forced to live under oversight from Washington because the country has made enormous racial progress, demonstrated most recently by the re-election of President Barack Obama. They object in particular to the 40-year-old formula by which some jurisdictions, most in the Deep South, are swept under the law and outside.

The administration and its allies acknowledge there has been progress. But they say minority voters still need the protection the law affords from efforts to reduce their influence at the polls. Last year, federal judges in two separate cases blocked Texas from putting in place a voter identification law and congressional redistricting plan because they discriminated against black and Hispanic residents.