In a decision described by many of its detractors as “cutting the heart out” of the Voting Rights Act, on June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court declared key sections of the law unconstitutional in a 5-4 vote. The vote split along ideological lines, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the majority opinion.
Voting rights were established initially in the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870 and guaranteeing black Americans the right to vote. However, many states established practices that discouraged or prevented blacks from voting, such as requiring literacy and “character” tests. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which restated the rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment.
The Voting Rights Act included strong federal oversight of elections in states and cities with a history of disenfranchising black voters. It has long been considered the most successful civil rights law ever passed. I believe it’s one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress. Little, if any, good can come from what the high court did.
The Supreme Court ruling struck down Section 4, which set out a formula to determine which states must receive clearance from the Justice Department before enacting changes to their voting procedures. This essentially nullified Section 5, which required nine states – Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia – as well as many individual counties and municipalities in other states, to clear with the Justice Department any proposed changes to their voting procedures in advance of implementation, a process called “preclearance.”
The case, Shelby County v. Holder, was filed by Shelby County, Ala., and challenged the Voting Rights Act – particularly Sections 4 and 5 – as unconstitutional. The complaint said the Voting Rights Act formula for deciding which states are covered – traditionally those with a history of racial discrimination or where voting rights were determined to be at risk – was based on old and outdated information. As a result, it was argued that Southern states receive unequal treatment that hampers reforms and creates an unfair and costly burden.
In his opinion, Justice Roberts writes Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which “required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting” is “a drastic departure from basic principles of federalism” and Section 4 of the Act, which “applied that requirement only to some States – an equally dramatic departure from the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty.”
The chief justice notes that the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965, was originally scheduled to expire after five years. Despite majority approval renewing the act in subsequent years, Justice Roberts writes “the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” I have to wonder how five justices could ignore the obvious attempts to discourage minorities from voting in this country.
However, in her dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out that the focus of the Voting Rights Act has shifted in time from “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers,” which she says includes things like redistricting along racial lines or establishing policies that hamper voter registration or voter turnout. She noted the task of ensuring equal rights for all voters is a long process and not yet complete. I concur with Justice Ginsburg’s rationale. We have made progress, but have a long way to go before equal rights for all voters are achieved.
Critics of what the court did note that the crucial danger in gutting the Voting Rights Act comes not so much at the state level as in lower levels of municipal government. There is generally much less scrutiny and fewer legal resources to challenge perceived misconduct at that level. The New York Times cited a recent article in The Yale Law Journal that noted from 1982 to 2006, more than 85 percent of voting change objections came from jurisdictions below the state level.
Before the Supreme Court decision, the Justice Department blocked redistricting plans proposed by Galveston County, Texas, saying they were created with “discriminatory purpose.” Ken Clark, a commissioner for Galveston County, told the New York Times that even if the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the county would “probably not revive” that redistricting plan.
Less than 48 hours after the Supreme Court ruling, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a statement that redistricting maps approved by the legislature may take effect without approval from the federal government. He also said the state’s voter ID law will take effect “immediately.” Five other states – Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia – announced plans to immediately move ahead with voter ID laws.
Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined the majority opinion. Justice Ginsburg was joined in dissent by Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. I have real difficulty in believing that this decision is good for America. We should be encouraging our citizens to vote – and ease the restrictions that traditionally have hurt minorities in the U.S. – instead of moving in the opposite direction.
Sources: ProPublica.org, New York Times, ThinkProgress.org, NPR
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