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Supreme Court Decision ‘Puts a Dagger in the Heart of the Voting Rights Act’

June 25, 2013  ·  Posted by Jeff Schuhrke

In a landmark decision today, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The act, passed at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, aims to ensure voting rights for African Americans in places with a history of enforcing racial discrimination at the polls through various restrictions. Section 4 lays out the formula for deciding which states and jurisdictions must seek federal approval—or “preclearance”—before they may change their election laws.

The 5-4 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder [PDF], with the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, stipulates that the Section 4 formula must be updated by Congress to reflect social progress since the VRA was passed 48 years ago.  Until Congress updates the formula, it will be easier for states that have traditionally been required to follow the preclearance provision to implement potentially restrictive voter ID laws. The AP notes:

The [preclearance] 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.

Critics say voter ID laws are racially discriminatory because a disproportionate number of African Americans lack the ID required to vote under these laws. The VRA’s preclearance provision blocked recent voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina, but after today’s ruling, those states can make a second attempt to implement those laws.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights activist and Freedom Rider, said of today’s decision, “What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act.”

The Associated Press →