In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has thrown out Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the historic law first passed in the days after 1965’s Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama.
The ruling voids the formula to determine which jurisdictions require “pre-clearance” from the federal government before they make any changes to their voting laws, effectively freeing officials to alter voting procedures at will until Congress authorizes a new formula.
The Voting Rights Act has been renewed by Congress several times. The last was in 2006, when a Republican House voted 390-33 and a Republican Senate voted 98-0 to send a renewal that authorized the law for 25 years to President George W. Bush for his signature. Despite Congress deciding that the Section 4 formula was still relevant seven years ago, conservatives on the Court disagreed.
“In assessing the ‘current need’ for a pre-clearance system treating States differently from one another today, history since 1965 cannot be ignored,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his majority decision for Shelby County v. Holder. After suggesting that the current formula is based on “40-year-old data,” he included a chart that demonstrated the success of the law when it comes to increasing registration among African-Americans.
However, just last year, courts based several decisions to block laws designed to suppress the minority vote in the 2012 general election on Section 5, which now holds no significance without Section 4. Despite the court’s intervention, voters in Florida had to wait as many as nine hours in line to vote.
Roberts wrote that Congress “may draft another formula based on current conditions,” which is highly unlikely given current partisan gridlock.
The Nation’s Ari Berman explains that the existing formula is extremely effective in determining jurisdictions that should require “pre-clearance”:
Six of the nine states fully covered by Section 5, all in the South, passed new voting restrictions after the 2010 election. “Section 5,” write law professors Christopher Elmendorf and Douglas Spencer, “is remarkably well tailored to the geography of anti-black prejudice.” Of the ten states where anti-black stereotypes are most common, based on data from the National Annenberg Election Survey, six in the South are subject to Section 5. Racially polarized voting and “explicit anti-black attitudes,” according to an AP survey, have increased since 2008. Arkansas and Virginia have passed strict new voter-ID laws this year, while North Carolina is considering a slew of draconian restrictions.
The states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia are all covered under the current formula. It also covers some counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and local jurisdictions in Michigan, all areas that have demonstrated historic discrimination against African-Americans, American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives or Latinos.
The case brought by Shelby County was backed by “leading operatives and funders in the conservative movement along with Republican attorneys general in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota and Texas.”
“Overturning Section 5 is in many respects the most important battle in the GOP’s war on voting,” according to Berman.
Think Progress‘ Josh Israel and Aviva Shen predict that the immediate impact of the demise of Section 4 will lead to stricter voter ID laws, racially gerrymandered legislative maps and blocking of grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts.
“All told, between 1982 and 2006, DOJ objections blocked over 700 voting changes based on a determination that the changes were discriminatory,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her passionate dissent that explicated several instances where “pre-clearance” had prevented discriminatory laws from taking effect.
“That determination of the body empowered to enforce the Civil War Amendments ‘by appropriate legislation’ merits this Court’s utmost respect,” Ginsburg summarized. “In my judgment, the Court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’ decision.”
“I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today,” President Obama said in a statement. “For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.”
After calling the Voting Rights Act “the cornerstone of the American civil rights movement,” Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday, “We’re going to work with Congress in this effort and the administration is going to do everything in our power to make sure that fair and equal voting processes are maintained.”
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File