Professor Nathaniel Persily Files Amicus Brief in Key Voting Rights Case

Summer 2009

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In late February, Columbia Law School Professor Nathaniel Persily filed an amicus brief in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, a Supreme Court case dealing with the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

The act requires states and localities with histories of discrimination (areas referred to under Section 5 as “covered jurisdictions”) to obtain approval from the Justice Department before implementing any proposed adjustments to their voting processes and procedures. The case centers on the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District in Austin, Texas, one of the Section 5–designated areas. In the past, Texas had employed a variety of tactics to discourage minority voting, which prompted the covered jurisdiction designation. But the Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District claimed that its history of voter discrimination had passed and aimed to rid itself of the limitations imposed by the Voting Rights Act.

Although the district pointed to the election of President Obama to support its argument that Section 5 is no longer necessary, Persily, the Charles Keller Beekman Professor of Law and Political Science, presented evidence refuting that claim in the brief he filed with the Court. Persily analyzed the results of the 2008 presidential election and found that, while President Obama won the majority of the vote nationwide due to high minority voting and an increase in the share of the white vote in non–covered jurisdictions, he won only 26 percent of the white vote in covered jurisdictions.

“Obama’s election was transformative and historic across several dimensions,” Persily said, “but to generalize from it that racially polarized voting has diminished across all states would be a mistake.”

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