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About Section 5 Of The Voting Rights Act

Jurisdictions Previously Covered by Section 5
Voting Changes Covered by Section 5
Making Section 5 Submissions
Section 5 Guidelines
Archive of Notices of Section 5 Submission Activity
Section 5 Changes by Type and Year
Section 5 Objections
Litigation Concerning Section 5

The Shelby County decision

On June 25, 2013, the United States Supreme Court held that it is unconstitutional to use the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act to determine which jurisdictions are subject to the preclearance requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Shelby County v. Holder, 570 U.S. 529 (2013). The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 itself. The effect of the Shelby County decision is that the jurisdictions identified by the coverage formula in Section 4(b) no longer need to seek preclearance for the new voting changes, unless they are covered by a separate court order entered under Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act.

Coverage Under the Special Provisions of the Voting Rights Act

Section 5 was enacted to freeze changes in election practices or procedures in covered jurisdictions until the new procedures have been determined, either after administrative review by the Attorney General, or after a lawsuit before the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, to have neither discriminatory purpose or effect. Section 5 was designed to ensure that voting changes in covered jurisdictions could not be implemented used until a favorable determination has been obtained.

The requirement was enacted in 1965 as temporary legislation, to expire in five years, and applicable only to certain states. The specially covered jurisdictions were identified in Section 4 by a formula. The first element in the formula was that the state or political subdivision of the state maintained on November 1, 1964, a "test or device," restricting the opportunity to register and vote. The second element of the formula would be satisfied if the Director of the Census determined that less than 50 percent of persons of voting age were registered to vote on November 1, 1964, or that less than 50 percent of persons of voting age voted in the presidential election of November 1964. Application of this formula resulted in the following states becoming, in their entirety, "covered jurisdictions": Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia, In addition, certain political subdivisions (usually counties) in four other states (Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, and North Carolina were covered. It also provided a procedure to terminate this coverage.

Under Section 5, any change with respect to voting in a covered jurisdiction -- or any political subunit within it -- cannot legally be enforced unless and until the jurisdiction first obtains the requisite determination by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia or makes a submission to the Attorney General. This requires proof that the proposed voting change does not deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. If the jurisdiction is unable to prove the absence of such discrimination, the District Court denies the requested judgment, or in the case of administrative submissions, the Attorney General objects to the change, and it remains legally unenforceable.

In 1970, Congress recognized the continuing need for the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which were due to expire that year, and renewed them for another five years. It also adopted an additional coverage formula, identical to the original formula except that it referenced November 1968 as the date to determine if there was a test or device, levels of voter registration, and electoral participation. This additional formula resulted in the partial coverage of ten states.

In 1975, the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act were extended for another seven years, and were broadened to address voting discrimination against members of "language minority groups." An additional coverage formula was enacted, based on the presence of tests or devices and levels of voter registration and participation as of November 1972. In addition, the 1965 definition of "test or device" was expanded to include the practice of providing election information, including ballots, only in English in states or political subdivisions where members of a single language minority constituted more than five percent of the citizens of voting age. This third formula had the effect of covering Alaska, Arizona, and Texas in their entirety, and parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota.

In 1982, Congress extended Section 5 for 25 years, but no new Section 5 coverage formula was adopted. Congress did, however, modify the procedure for a jurisdiction to terminate coverage under the special provisions.

In 2006, Congress extended the requirements of Section 5 for an additional 25 years.

Judicial Review of Voting Changes

Section 5 provides two methods for a covered jurisdiction to comply with Section 5. The first method mentioned in the statute is by means of a declaratory judgment action filed by the covered jurisdiction in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. A three-judge panel is convened in such cases. The defendant in these cases is the United States or the Attorney General, represented in court by attorneys from the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division. Appeals from decisions of the three-judge district court go directly to the United States Supreme Court.

The jurisdiction must establish that the proposed voting change "does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color or [membership in a language minority group]." The status of a voting change that is the subject of a declaratory judgment review action is that it is unenforceable until the declaratory judgment action is obtained and the jurisdiction may not implement or use the voting change.

Administrative Review of Voting Changes

The second method of compliance with Section 5 is known as administrative review. A covered jurisdiction can avoid the potentially lengthy and expensive litigation route by submitting the voting change to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, to which the Attorney General has delegated the authority to administer the Section 5 review process. The jurisdiction can implement the change if the Attorney General affirmatively indicates no objection to the change or if, at the expiration of 60 days, no objection to the submitted change has been interposed by the Attorney General. It is the practice of the Department of Justice to respond in writing to each submission, specifically stating the determination made regarding each submitted voting change.

Well over 99 percent of the changes affecting voting are reviewed administratively, no doubt because of the relative simplicity of the process, the significant cost savings over litigation, and the presence of specific deadlines governing the Attorney General's issuance of a determination letter.

Over the last decade, the Attorney General received between 4,500 and 5,500 Section 5 submissions, and reviewed between 14,000 and 20,000 voting changes, per year.

The Attorney General may interpose an objection by informing the jurisdiction of the decision within 60 days after a completed submission of a voting change is received. Most voting changes submitted to the Attorney General are determined to have met the Section 5 standard. Since Section 5 was enacted, the Attorney General has objected to about one percent of the voting changes that have been submitted.

The Attorney General has published detailed guidelines that explain Section 5. Additional information about the submission process is available here. The Attorney General has posted notices of Section 5 submissions.

In conducting administrative review, the Attorney General acts as the surrogate for the district court, applying the same standards that would be applied by the court. The burden of establishing that a proposed voting change is nondiscriminatory falls on the jurisdiction, just as it would on the jurisdiction as plaintiff in a Section 5 declaratory judgment action.

There are occasions when a jurisdiction may need to complete the Section 5 review process on an accelerated basis due to anticipated implementation before the end of the 60-day review period. In such cases, the jurisdiction should formally request "Expedited Consideration" in its submission letter, explicitly describing the basis for the request in light of conditions in the jurisdiction and specifying the date by which the determination must be received. Although the Attorney General will attempt to accommodate all reasonable requests, the nature of the review required for particular submissions will necessarily vary and an expedited determination may not be possible in certain cases.

A determination by the Attorney General not to object removes the prohibition on enforcement imposed by Section 5. This decision not to object to a submitted change cannot be challenged in court. Morris v. Gressette, 432 U.S. 491 (1977). Although the jurisdiction may then implement that change, the change remains subject to a challenge on any other grounds. For example, a redistricting plan may still be challenged in court by the Attorney General as violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, or any other applicable provision of federal law which the Attorney General is authorized to enforce. Similarly, private individuals with standing may challenge that practice under any applicable provision of state or federal law.

The declaratory judgment route remains available to jurisdictions even after the Attorney General interposes an objection. The proceeding before the three-judge D.C. District Court, is de novo and does not constitute an appeal of the Attorney General's determination.

Lawsuits to Prevent the Use of Voting Changes Not Reviewed under Section 5

Voting changes that have not been reviewed under Section 5 are legally unenforceable. Section 12(d) of the Act authorizes the Attorney General to file suit to enjoin violations of Section 5. A private right of action to seek injunctive relief against a Section 5 violation was recognized by the Supreme Court in Allen v. State Board of Elections, 393 U.S. 544, 554-57 (1969). Any person or organization with standing to sue can challenge a Section 5 violation in the United States District Court in the judicial district where the violation is alleged to have occurred. Whether brought by the Attorney General or by private parties, these cases are commonly known as Section 5 enforcement actions.

Section 5 enforcement cases are heard by three-judge district court panels, whose role is to consider three things only:

  1. whether a covered voting change has occurred;
  2. if so, whether the requirements of Section 5 have been met preclearance has been obtained; and
  3. if not, what relief by the court is appropriate.

Lopez v. Monterey County, 519 U.S. 9, 23 (1996). The only court that can make the determination that change is not discriminatory is purpose or effect is the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Upon finding non-compliance with Section 5, the local federal court will consider an appropriate equitable remedy. The general objective of such remedies is to restore the situation that existed before the implementation of the change. Thus, the typical remedy includes issuance of an injunction against further use of the change. In certain circumstances, other remedies have included voiding illegally-conducted elections, enjoining upcoming elections unless and until the jurisdiction complies with Section 5, or ordering a special election; in some cases courts have also issued orders directing the jurisdiction to seek Section 5 review of the change from the Attorney General or the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

Updated November 17, 2023