Prior to 2013, one of the ways in which the Voting Rights Act guarded against discriminatory voting laws and procedures was to require certain state and local governments to obtain prior approval (“preclearance”) from the Justice Department or a federal court before changing their election rules.
In 2010, private citizens of Kinston, North Carolina, filed suit in federal court in D.C. challenging the constitutionality of the preclearance requirement after the Attorney General refused to preclear the town’s proposal changing its elections from being run on a partisan basis (e.g., Democrats versus Republicans) to nonpartisan (no party labels). The ACLU intervened in the case on behalf of six African-American residents of Kinston and the North Carolina State Conference of Branches of the NAACP to defend the Voting Rights Act.
The Attorney General successfully moved to dismiss the case because the plaintiffs lacked standing. The plaintiffs appealed, and in 2011 the court of appeals reversed, holding that voters and candidates had standing.
On remand, the district court concluded that the Voting Rights Act provisions at issue “are a careful solution to a vitally important problem” and “do not violate the Constitution.” Plaintiffs again appealed, but in early 2012 the Attorney General moved to dismiss the appeal, because he had reconsidered and precleared the voting change at issue. This development outraged the plaintiffs; what they really wanted was not approval of their voting change, but a trip to the Supreme Court. But the court of appeals dismissed the case as moot. The plaintiffs sought Supreme Court review, unsuccessfully.