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Supreme Court to rule on scope of federal powers in Voting Rights Act case

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But some state and local governments say it imposes an unfair burden, forcing them to seek special approval from Washington under a regime that holds them accountable in 2012 for a history of discrimination in the 1950s and 1960s that they say has long since been remedied.

Supporters of the law counter that the United States has not yet solved the problem of racial discrimination in voting, and that the law is still needed to prevent backsliding.

The central argument against the law invokes federalism, the constitutionally mandated balance of power between the states and the national government. At issue is whether Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA are an improper intrusion by the federal government into the sovereign power of state and local governments.

Those two sections of the Voting Rights Act rely on Congress’s authority to enforce constitutional protections against racial discrimination in voting and elections. The high court has said such federal enforcement efforts must be "congruent and proportional" to the targeted problem.

Faced with persistent efforts by some jurisdictions in the 1950s and 1960s to systematically deny full voting rights to minorities, lawmakers in Washington decided to take extraordinary action.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 created a list of state and local governments with particularly egregious records of fostering discrimination in voting. The new law required those on the list to obtain permission from Washington before they could implement any new voting procedures.

Discriminatory procedures were disallowed. Thus, state and local governments that in the past had tried to bypass the Voting Rights Act’s requirement of equal treatment were forced to adopt fair voting procedures.

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