OCTOBER TERM, 1996
YOUNG ET AL. v. FORD ICE ET AL.
APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF MISSISSIPPI
No.95-2031. Argued January 6, 1997-Decided March 31,1997
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) requires States to provide simplified systems for registering to vote in federal elections, including a system for voter registration on a driver's license application. Beginning on January 1, 1995, Mississippi attempted to comply with the NVRA, attempting to replace its "Old System" of registration with a "Provisional Plan" that simplified registration procedures for both federal and state elections. The United States Attorney General precleared the Provisional Plan under § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which prohibits States with a specified history of voting discrimination from making changes in voting "practices or procedures" that have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color. However, a week before the plan was precleared, the state legislature tabled legislation needed to make the changes effective for state elections. On February 10, 1995, the State abandoned the Provisional Plan in favor of a "New System," which uses the Provisional Plan for federal election registration only and the Old System for both state and federal election registration. The State made no further preclearance submissions. In this suit, appellants claim that the State and its officials violated § 5 by implementing changes in its registration system without preclearance. A three-judge District Court granted the State summary judgment, holding that the differences in the New System and Provisional Plan were attributable to the State's attempt to correct a misapplication of state law, and, thus, were not changes subject to preclearance; and that the State had precleared all the changes that the New System made in the Old when the Attorney General precleared the changes needed to implement the NVRA.
Held: Mississippi has not precleared, and must preclear, the "practices and procedures" that it sought to administer on and after February 10, 1995. Pp. 281-291.
(a) Several circumstances, taken together, lead to the conclusion that the Provisional Plan, although precleared by the Attorney General, was not "in force or effect" under § 5 and, hence, did not become part of the baseline against which to judge whether future change occurred. Those seeking to administer the plan did not intend to administer an
unlawful plan, and they abandoned the plan as soon as it became clear that the legislature would not pass the laws needed to make it lawful. Moreover, all these events took place within a few weeks: The plan was used for only 41 days and by only a third of the State's voter registration officials, and the State held no elections prior to its abandonment of the plan, nor were any elections imminent. Pp. 282-283.
(b) Nonetheless, the New System included changes that must be precleared because it contains "practices and procedures" that are significantly different from the Old System. Minor changes, as well as major, require preclearance. See Allen v. State Ed. of Elections, 393 U. S. 544, 566-569. This is true even where, as here, the changes are made in an effort to comply with federal law, so long as those changes reflect policy choices made by state or local officials. Id., at 565, n. 29. The NVRA does not preclude application of the VRA's requirements. Change invokes the preclearance process whether that change works in favor of, works against, or is neutral in its impact on minorities because the preclearance process is aimed at preserving the status quo until the Attorney General or the courts have an opportunity to evaluate a proposed change. Although the NVRA imposed mandates on the States, Mississippi's changes to the New System are discretionary and nonministerial, reflecting the exercise of policy choice and discretion by state officials. Thus, they are appropriate matters for § 5 preclearance review. pp. 283-286.
(c) Mississippi's arguments in favor of its position that the Attorney General has already precleared its efforts to comply with the NVRA are rejected. Mississippi correctly argues that the decisions to adopt the NVRA federal registration system and to retain a prior state registration system, by themselves, are not changes for § 5 purposes. However, preclearance requires examination of the federal system's discretionary elements in a context that includes history, purpose, and practical effect. The argument on the merits is whether these changes could have the purpose and effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color. Preclearance is necessary to evaluate this argument. Pp. 286-291.
Reversed and remanded.
BREYER, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.
Brenda Wright argued the cause for appellants. With her on the briefs were Barbara R. Arnwine, Thomas J. Henderson, Samuel L. Walters, A. Spencer Gilbert III, Laughlin McDonald, and Neil Bradley.