JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.
In 1966, South Carolina enacted a statute that altered Edgefield County's election practices but the statute was not submitted to federal officials for their approval as required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As of November 1, 1964, local political authority in Edgefield County, South Carolina, was vested in a County Supervisor and a Board of County Commissioners.
On June 1, 1966, the South Carolina General Assembly enacted Act No. 1104, which was effective as a matter of state law when it was signed by the Governor on June 7, 1966. The Act created a new form of government for Edgefield County, altering the county's election practices. The office of County Supervisor and the Board of County Commissioners were abolished upon expiration of the incumbents' terms. A three-member County Council with broad legislative and administrative powers was created,
The 1966 Act was amended in 1971 by Act No. 521, "An Act to Amend Act No. 1104 of 1966 . . . So As To Increase The Number of Districts And The Number of County Council Members."
County Council elections in Edgefield County have been conducted under the basic scheme established by the 1966 Act since the first elections held pursuant to the Act in November 1966.
In 1971, state officials sent a letter to the Attorney General of the United States stating: "In accordance with the provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, there are submitted herewith copies" of 18 listed recent state enactments, which included the 1971 amendment regarding Edgefield
The appellants, black voters residing in Edgefield County, South Carolina, commenced a class action in 1974 in the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina challenging the county's election practices on constitutional grounds. Specifically, they alleged in their complaint
While continuing to press their constitutional claim in the District Court, appellants then filed an amended complaint, alleging that the 1966 Act had never been submitted to federal officials as required by § 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 79 Stat. 439, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 1973c. A three-judge District Court was convened to decide this claim. That court reviewed South Carolina's 1971 submission and noted that the Justice Department had been made aware of the provisions of the 1966 Act. The District Court concluded that the Justice Department's request for additional information "indicates that Justice Department's review of [the 1971 Act] encompassed all aspects of the Act, including the effect of the at-large with residency requirement voting that had been implemented in 1966." App. to Juris. Statement 12a. The District Court did not find, however, that the Justice Department had been provided with any information concerning
After obtaining the views of the Solicitor General, who urged summary reversal of the District Court's judgment, we noted probable jurisdiction, 462 U.S. 1130 (1983), and for the reasons which follow, we now reverse.
The Fifteenth Amendment commands: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." The Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, 42 U. S. C. § 1973 et seq. (1976 ed. and Supp. V),
The "preclearance" requirement mandated by § 5 of the Act is perhaps the most stringent of these remedies, and certainly the most extraordinary.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as originally enacted, required a covered State or political subdivision desiring to implement any election practices different from those in effect on November 1, 1964, to obtain a declaratory judgment from a three-judge panel of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia holding that the change "does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color" before the new practice could be implemented. 79 Stat. 439. A proviso in § 5, however, established an alternative method of obtaining federal clearance of the measure: if the new election practice was submitted to the Attorney General of the United States and the Attorney General did not interpose an objection within 60 days of the submission, the jurisdiction was permitted to implement the change.
The original voting rights bill did not contain this alternative preclearance method; but after concerns arose that the declaratory judgment route would unduly delay implementation of nondiscriminatory legislation, it appears that the proviso was added "to provide a speedy alternative method of compliance to covered States." Morris v. Gressette, 432 U.S. 491, 503 (1977). While the legislative history of the proviso is sparse, ibid., the history which does exist and the lack of controversy surrounding the proviso indicate that Congress in no way intended that the substantive protections of § 5 be sacrificed in the name of expediency, though it did logically anticipate that most jurisdictions would opt for the alternative preclearance method and that declaratory judgment actions would likely be limited to those occasions on which the Attorney General interposed an objection, see H. R. Rep. No. 439, 89th Cong., 1st Sess., 26 (1965); Hearings
In evaluating the use of the alternative procedure of submitting proposed changes to the Attorney General, it must be remembered that § 5 "was enacted in large part because of the acknowledged and anticipated inability of the Justice Department — given limited resources — to investigate independently all changes with respect to voting enacted by States and subdivisions covered by the Act." Perkins v. Matthews, 400 U.S. 379, 392, n. 10 (1971). Moreover, it is apparent that ambiguity concerning the scope of a preclearance is more likely if the State opts for the more expeditious method: silence constitutes consent under that method, and even when the Attorney General affirmatively states he has no objection, ambiguity may be present if the State's submission itself is ambiguous. The potential for such ambiguity was particularly pronounced prior to the adoption of detailed regulations by the Justice Department governing preclearance
Congress has amended the Voting Rights Act several times, each time continuing the basic structure of the original preclearance provision.
In light of the structure, purpose, history, and operation of § 5, we have rejected the suggestion that the "Act contemplates that a `submission' occurs when the Attorney General merely becomes aware of legislation, no matter in what manner," and instead have held that "[a] fair interpretation of the Act requires that the State in some unambiguous and recordable manner submit any legislation or regulation in question directly to the Attorney General with a request for his consideration pursuant to the Act." Whitley v. Williams, decided with Allen v. State Board of Elections, supra, at 571. More recently we stated: "While the Act does provide that inaction by the Attorney General may, under certain circumstances, constitute federal preclearance of a change, the purposes of the Act would plainly be subverted if the Attorney General could ever be deemed to have approved a voting change when the proposal was neither properly submitted nor in fact evaluated by him." United States v. Sheffield Board of Comm'rs, supra, at 136. This interpretation of the provision is faithful to its history and purpose, while at
Edgefield County is admittedly a political subdivision of South Carolina subject to the provisions of the Voting Rights Act,
As we previously observed, the preclearance procedures mandated by § 5 of the Voting Rights Act focus entirely on changes in election practices. Supra, at 245. The title of the 1971 amendment unambiguously identified the changes in election practices which it effected — an increase in the number of Council members and residency districts — and served to define the scope of the preclearance request. An examination of the correspondence concerning the 1971 submission, supra, at 240-241, plainly shows that only the 1971 amendment was being considered for preclearance,
The District Court held, however, that the Attorney General's request for additional information (including a copy of the 1966 statute and information concerning previous candidates, election results, and residency district boundaries) indicated that he had considered all aspects of the electoral scheme, including the changes effected in the 1966 Act. App. to Juris. Statement 12a. In the alternative, it held that since the 1971 amendment retained the changes effected by the 1966 Act, the lack of objection to the 1971 submission necessarily constituted approval of those changes as well and rendered the failure to preclear the 1966 Act moot. Id., at 13a.
The significance the District Court attached to the Attorney General's request for additional information was wholly unwarranted. It is plain that the information which the Attorney General requested and received was merely relevant
Moreover, the information obtained in response to the Attorney General's request did not enable him to ascertain whether a covered change was made by the 1966 Act,
In concluding that there is insufficient evidence for a finding that the Attorney General actually considered the changes made by the 1966 Act in preclearing the 1971 amendment, we note that at the time of the 1971 submission, the Attorney General was completing promulgation of regulations governing § 5 submissions.
The District Court also erred in viewing the submission's scope as encompassing all features of the 1971 amendment, rather than the changes effected by that particular enactment. When a jurisdiction adopts legislation that makes clearly defined changes in its election practices, sending that legislation to the Attorney General merely with a general request for preclearance pursuant to § 5 constitutes a submission of the changes made by the enactment and cannot be deemed a submission of changes made by previous legislation which themselves were independently subject to § 5 preclearance.
To the extent there was any ambiguity in the scope of the preclearance request, the structure and purpose of the preclearance requirement plainly counsel against resolving such ambiguities in favor of the submitting jurisdiction in the circumstances of this case. The preclearance process is by design a stringent one; it is predicated on the congressional finding that there is a risk that covered jurisdictions may attempt to circumvent the protections afforded by the Act; the burden of proof (the risk of nonpersuasion) is placed upon the covered jurisdiction; and submissions under the alternative preclearance method — adopted for the convenience of the covered jurisdictions while Congress recognized the inability of the Justice Department independently to monitor and to identify changes in election practices — should be carefully construed to protect the remedial aims of the Act. Moreover, the congressional assessment of the practical operation of the provision in the years since its adoption clearly indicates Congress' continuing intent to guard against any diminution in the potency of the provision, and an intent to continue to insist upon submission of changes which had previously not been submitted. The broad scope given to the 1971 submission by the District Court, and its conclusion that submitting the 1971 amendment rendered the failure to preclear the 1966 Act moot, are inconsistent with the foregoing governing principles.
In summary, to the extent the judgment below may be interpreted as resting upon a factual finding that the Attorney General actually considered and approved the changes made
Accordingly, we reverse the District Court's judgment and remand to the District Court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.
It is so ordered.
JUSTICE BLACKMUN, JUSTICE POWELL, and JUSTICE REHNQUIST concur in the judgment.
"§ 1973c. Alteration of voting qualifications and procedures; action by state or political subdivision for declaratory judgment of no denial or abridgment of voting rights; three judge district court; appeal to Supreme Court
"Whenever a State or political subdivision with respect to which the prohibitions set forth in section 1973b(a) of this title based upon determinations made under the first sentence of section 1973b(b) of this title are in effect shall enact or seek to administer any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1964, or whenever a State or political subdivision with respect to which the prohibitions set forth in section 1973b(a) of this title based upon determinations made under the second sentence of section 1973b(b) of this title are in effect shall enact or seek to administer any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1968, or whenever a State or political subdivision with respect to which the prohibitions set forth in section 1973b(a) of this title based upon determinations made under the third sentence of section 1973b(b) of this title are in effect shall enact or seek to administer any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure with respect to voting different from that in force or effect on November 1, 1972, such State or subdivision may institute an action in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for a declaratory judgment that such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure does not have the purpose and will not have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color, or in contravention of the guarantees set forth in section 1973b(f)(2) of this title, and unless and until the court enters such judgment no person shall be denied the right to vote for failure to comply with such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure: Provided, That such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure may be enforced without such proceeding if the qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure has been submitted by the chief legal officer or other appropriate official of such State or subdivision to the Attorney General and the Attorney General has not interposed an objection within sixty days after such submission, or upon good cause shown, to facilitate an expedited approval within sixty days after such submission, the Attorney General has affirmatively indicated that such objection will not be made. Neither an affirmative indication by the Attorney General that no objection will be made, nor the Attorney General's failure to object, nor a declaratory judgment entered under this section shall bar a subsequent action to enjoin enforcement of such qualification, prerequisite, standard, practice, or procedure. In the event the Attorney General affirmatively indicates that no objection will be made within the sixty-day period following receipt of a submission, the Attorney General may reserve the right to reexamine the submission if additional information comes to his attention during the remainder of the sixty-day period which would otherwise require objection in accordance with this section. Any action under this section shall be heard and determined by a court of three judges in accordance with the provisions of section 2284 of title 28 and any appeal shall lie to the Supreme Court." 42 U. S. C. § 1973c.
The only questions in an action alleging a violation of the § 5 preclearance requirement are (1) whether a change is covered by § 5, (2) if the change is covered, whether § 5's approval requirements have been satisfied, and (3) if the requirements have not been satisfied, what relief is appropriate. Lockhart v. United States, 460 U.S. 125, 129, n. 3 (1983). The question whether the 1966 Act had a discriminatory purpose or effect is not an issue at this stage of the § 5 litigation: that question must be initially decided by the District Court for the District of Columbia or the Attorney General. Perkins v. Matthews, 400 U.S. 379, 383-385 (1971); Allen v. State Board of Elections, 393 U.S. 544, 558-559 (1969). Nor is there any question that the Act was required to be submitted for preclearance — the parties have stipulated that submission was required. Given this stipulation, the parties understandably have made little effort to define precisely the nature of the changes in election practices made by the Act which required preclearance, but the briefing indicates that the parties agree that the at-large residency requirement voting scheme constituted such a change. While this matter may be more fully explored in future proceedings after remand, several changes are suggested: the different terms of office for Council members in comparison with the former Board, the basic reallocation of authority from the state legislative delegation to the Council, the shift from two appointed Board positions to at-large election of their Council counterparts, and the residency requirement applicable to all members of the Council.
"There is no dispute that Act No. 1104 of 1966 was subject to the preclearance provisions of § 5 of the Act and that county officials should have, but did not, submit the Act to the Justice Department or to the District Court for the District of Columbia for preclearance." App. to Juris. Statement 6a.
In this case, state officials had independent submission burdens respecting both the 1966 changes and the 1971 changes, but only met their burden respecting the latter changes.