Political News

High court voids key part of Voting Rights Act

Posted June 25, 2013

— The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced unless Congress comes up with an up-to-date formula for deciding which states and localities still need federal monitoring.

The justices said in 5-4 vote that the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.

The court did not strike down the advance approval requirement of the law that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965. But the justices did say lawmakers must update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek Washington's approval, in advance, for election changes.

Chief Justice John Roberts said for the conservative majority that Congress "may draft another formula based on current conditions."

That task eluded Congress in 2006 when lawmakers overwhelmingly renewed the advance approval requirement with no changes in which states and local jurisdictions were covered, and Congress did nothing in response to a high court ruling in a similar challenge in 2009 in which the justices raised many of the same concerns.

"The coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs," Roberts said.

President Barack Obama called the decision "a setback" and said he was "deeply disappointed" by the ruling.

"As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists," Obama said in a statement. "I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls."

Voting maps for large swaths of eastern North Carolina have been subject to federal approval under the Voting Rights Act. Attorney General Roy Cooper said state lawmakers need to tread carefully when addressing issues like voter identification at the polls.

"This ruling doesn’t eliminate North Carolina’s obligation to keep elections open and accessible," Cooper said in a statement. "Now that this important tool used to fight election law discrimination is gone, the legislature must take even more care to resist new laws that make it harder for people to vote."

With the ruling, a host of state and local laws that have not received Justice Department approval or have not yet been submitted will be able to take effect. Prominent among those are voter identification laws in Alabama and Mississippi.

The American Civil Liberties Union echoed Obama's call for swift congressional action, saying many North Carolina voters are left "vulnerable" by the ruling.

"With attempts to suppress voting becoming more common and more sophisticated across the country and North Carolina’s legislature poised to approve legislation that will make it harder for thousands of eligible state voters to cast a ballot by requiring forms of ID that many North Carolinians lack and cannot easily obtain, the need for such protections is more urgent than ever," Jennifer Rudinger, executive director for the ACLU in North Carolina, said in a statement.

Going forward, the outcome alters the calculus of passing election-related legislation in the affected states and local jurisdictions. The threat of an objection from Washington has hung over election-related proposals for nearly a half century. At least until Congress acts, that deterrent now is gone.

That prospect has worried civil rights groups which especially worry that changes on the local level might not get the same scrutiny as the actions of state legislatures.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by her three liberal colleagues, dissented from Tuesday's ruling.

Ginsburg said no one doubts that voting discrimination still exists. "But the court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination," she said in a dissent that she read aloud in the packed courtroom.

Ginsburg said the law continues to be necessary to protect against what she called subtler, "second-generation" barriers to voting. She identified one such effort as the switch to at-large voting from a district-by-district approach in a city with a sizable black minority. The at-large system allows the majority to "control the election of each city council member, effectively eliminating the potency of the minority's votes," she said.

Justice Clarence Thomas was part of the majority, but wrote separately to say again that he would have struck down the advance approval requirement itself.

Civil rights lawyers condemned the ruling.

"The Supreme Court has effectively gutted one of the nation's most important and effective civil rights laws. Minority voters in places with a record of discrimination are now at greater risk of being disenfranchised than they have been in decades. Today's decision is a blow to democracy. Jurisdictions will be able to enact policies which prevent minorities from voting, and the only recourse these citizens will have will be expensive and time-consuming litigation," said Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group represented a black resident of the Alabama County that challenged the law.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, "This is like letting you keep your car, but taking away the keys."

The decision comes five months after President Barack Obama, the country's first black chief executive, started his second term in the White House, re-elected by a diverse coalition of voters.

The high court is in the midst of a broad re-examination of the ongoing necessity of laws and programs aimed at giving racial minorities access to major areas of American life from which they once were systematically excluded. The justices issued a modest ruling Monday that preserved affirmative action in higher education and will take on cases dealing with anti-discrimination sections of a federal housing law and another affirmative action case from Michigan next term.

The court warned of problems with the voting rights law in a similar case heard in 2009. The justices averted a major constitutional ruling at that time, but Congress did nothing to address the issues the court raised. The law's opponents, sensing its vulnerability, filed several new lawsuits.

The latest decision came in a challenge to the advance approval, or preclearance, requirement, which was brought by Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.

The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure's strong medicine was appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee of the vote for black Americans.

But it asked whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states' rights to conduct elections, an issue the court's conservative justices also explored at the argument in February. It was considered an emergency response when first enacted in 1965.

The county noted that the 25-year extension approved in 2006 would keep some places under Washington's oversight until 2031 and seemed not to account for changes that include the elimination of racial disparity in voter registration and turnout or the existence of allegations of race-based discrimination in voting in areas of the country that are not subject to the provision.

The Obama administration and civil rights groups said there is a continuing need for it and pointed to the Justice Department's efforts to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas last year, as well as a redistricting plan in Texas that a federal court found discriminated against the state's large and growing Hispanic population.

Advance approval was put into the law to give federal officials a potent tool to defeat persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting.

The provision was a huge success because it shifted the legal burden and required governments that were covered to demonstrate that their proposed changes would not discriminate. Congress periodically has renewed it over the years. The most recent extension was overwhelmingly approved by a Republican-led Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.

The requirement currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan. Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Towns in New Hampshire that had been covered by the law were freed from the advance approval requirement in March. Supporters of the provision pointed to the ability to bail out of the prior approval provision to argue that the law was flexible enough to accommodate change and that the court should leave the Voting Rights Act intact.

On Monday, the Justice Department announced an agreement that would allow Hanover County, Va., to bail out.


This story is closed for comments.

Oldest First
View all
  • seriouslyrevoked Jun 25, 2013

    Unfortunately I won't be around when the Liberals are 24% of the population, about forty years, and they have to face the racist charge. So called equality in its current extreme is really self imposed political and cultural genocide. Talk about ironic. Freedom to jump off the cliff. And they think they are the smartest people around? Not for long...

  • goldenosprey Jun 25, 2013

    "Why is it that you feel that helping your fellow man is such a "bad" thing to do?" t watts

    Because when you stand in the way of social Darwinism you prevent the Strong from completely trampling the Weak. And that is unnatural, like being gay or the color fuchsia. It's in the Bible or somewhere important.

    "At Obama's first election there were groups organizing and paying to bus poor people to the voting sites. That proves that there are resources for the poor when needed." Drescher

    Of course there are. That's why there is zero poverty in America. What bothers you is that votes cast by someone who arrived to the polls in a limo count the same as someone's who arrived in a bus.

    Fret not, AFP (known as "senior management" on Jones Street) is working on that detail too.

  • goldenosprey Jun 25, 2013

    We are still waiting for that list of non-third world countries without "onerous costly" universal coverage. Must be taking a while to type out all those countries' names, LOL.

    BTW an American saying anyone else's healthcare is costly goes to my previous post: right wing hypocrisy knows no bounds.

  • Confucius say Jun 25, 2013

    At Obama's first election there were groups organizing and paying to bus poor people to the voting sites. That proves that there are resources for the poor when needed. Why don't those same groups, churches, etc.. continue with helping and bus them into town to get an ID? They could also help with the cost where needed. You know, something like community organizing!

  • Krimson Jun 25, 2013

    Crumps: "Well you go superhero!"

    Why is it that you feel that helping your fellow man is such a "bad" thing to do? That you would deride someone willing to help fellow citizens? Lack of "integrity" perhaps...

    Anyways, you shouldn't talk about "making more problems than you solve", b/c that is precisely what Voter ID laws do - create problems for normal people, in order to obtain a false sense of security. IDs do no good if the State doesn't verify their authenticity and IDs do no good if people use absentee ballots. When you recommend disenfranchising more people than will be potentially stopped from committing fraud, you are "making more problems than you solve".

  • That Explains It Jun 25, 2013

    Basically the law implies that Blacks couldn't find their way to the polling booths without the help of Uncle Sam, much less know which way to vote - again, without the help of Uncle Sam sayin day Obama stash gonna git taken way.

  • junkmail5 Jun 25, 2013

    I actually have family there- dnut

    ah, then it's your family that's lying... thanks for the clarification!

    (seriously, the ACTUAL results are available online, all over... if anybody got >100% you'd be able to provide a link showing it... you can't- because that DID NOT ACTUALLY HAPPEN)

  • junkmail5 Jun 25, 2013

    Just your statement alone of correcting me multiple times is a lie. - Dnut

    No, it's not

    I've corrected your lie about >100% voter turnout every time you've repeated it.

    And you still refuse to stop reposing the same lie you are continually corrected on, or ever apologize for lying in the first place.


    Surely if there was any value to your argument you'd be able to support it without lying, right?

  • Crumps Br0ther Jun 25, 2013

    And I don't need to stand in line for an ID. I have one already. But I'm willing to stand up for those that can't do it for themselves. Again, it reflects on your "integrity" that you can't see that...

    Well you go superhero! You going to take them to the DMV like you take them to the polls? You stand up for them on everything else, then help them get IDs because they are going to need them. Whats the big deal? Oh and be sure to get a tourniquet for that bleeding heart.

    How is it racist to ask for ID? You libs just make up more problems than you solve and you keep people thinking they are victims. Yah you're full of integrity

  • Crumps Br0ther Jun 25, 2013

    Pot meet Kettle...after all Obama was okay with his Attorney General intervening for 2 Black Panther intimidating voters with clubs!

    Liberal intimidation is different than conservative intimidation apparently