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Voting Rights Act at Risk?

National Archive/Newsmakers
President Lyndon B. Johnson presents one of the pens used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to James Farmer, director of the Congress of Racial Equality on Aug. 6, 1965. The Voting Rights Act was unlike any other law in the way that it singled out for pre-emptive enforcement specific places deemed to have a history of discrimination.

It wasn’t the first time Blum had turned to the courts. He successfully challenged Texas’ redistricting process after losing a 1992 House race there.

“The Texas Legislature had systematically, almost block by block, street by street, harvested African-Americans and Hispanics out of multiracial, multiethnic neighborhoods in order to create safe majority-minority districts that violated every basic tenet of traditional redistricting principles,” Blum said.

He first founded the Campaign for Colorblind America to challenge some redistricting plans. Its successor group, the Project on Fair Representation, is fully funded and receives administrative support from DonorsTrust, a charitable organization devoted to “the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise.” Blum said he draws a modest salary.

Blum started searching for a jurisdiction that could be a plaintiff in a case challenging the constitutionality of the preclearance statute, eventually settling on a municipal utility district outside Austin, Texas, in which the board is publicly elected. The Supreme Court, in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, ruled in 2009 that the district was entitled to an exemption from preclearance, but it avoided addressing the constitutionality of the provision and its most recent authorization.

“When that was the outcome,” Blum said, “it became apparent to me and others that we were going to need to pursue finding a new jurisdiction and coming at this from a slightly different way than the first go-round.”

Blum spends between 15 and 20 hours a week reading news articles and regulatory filings related to race-based legislation, as well as the Justice Department’s preclearance denial letters. He is the engine behind an affirmative-action case, Fisher v. Texas, that the justices also will rule on this term.

When he noticed that some annexations by the city of Calera, Ala., had been denied because they diluted the power of minority voters, he called the city attorney to find out why. The attorney was Ellis, who also happened to represent Shelby County.

“We talked about our mutual hope that the court would end Section 5 and, failing to do so, that perhaps Shelby County might be the next plaintiff that would bring a challenge,” Blum said.

Ellis had grown up on a dairy farm just a mile from his law office in the Shelby County seat of Columbiana. Back then, the county, which lies southeast of Birmingham, was almost exclusively dairy, cotton and soybean farms. In the years since, its population has exploded from just more than 30,000 in 1960 to nearly 200,000 in 2010, with most residents commuting to professional jobs within its borders. “I don’t think we have a single dairy farm left in the county now,” Ellis says.

Although Ellis considers himself a “strong proponent and believer in the Voting Rights Act,” he thinks that for the most part, Shelby County has changed with the times. Its largely white population routinely elects black candidates, he says, so he wonders why it should have to ask the federal government for permission before moving a polling location from one church to another across the street.

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