In a 5–4 decision yesterday, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The key law was passed in 1965 to prevent disenfranchisement of minority voters.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts explained:
“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”
The Court’s opinion in Shelby County v. Holder was not well received by the Obama administration.
Vice President Joe Biden said at the White House “I have to say that like so many across the country, I’m disappointed in the Supreme Court’s decision today."
"We will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action using every legal tool that remains to us against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise," stated Attorney General Eric Holder, who was the defendant in the case.
Civil rights activists and leaders are up in arms as well. Reverend Al Sharpton argued on MSNBC:
"What they have just done is really revoked a lot of what Dr. King’s dream was all about. We build a monument to Dr. King, and part of, at least half, of what Dr. King’s dream was about was voter rights ’65. They've just revoked that. They just canceled the dream. And the children of the dream are not going to sit by and allow that to happen.”
Section 4 requires states and municipalities that have a history of voting discrimination to go through preclearance with the Justice Department whenever they redistrict or update voting laws.
Those jurisdictions cover large parts of the South, but Manhattan, Brooklyn, certain towns in Michigan, and some counties in California and South Dakota are all subject to the law.
In order to salvage what’s left of the Voting Rights Act, Congress will have to act by creating a new formula that would calculate which jurisdictions require preclearance on voting law changes.
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), a Congressional black caucus member from Alabama’s Seventh District, explains what this decision means to voters in her district, and her hopes for Congressional action.
The Supreme Court's decision yesterday to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act also left another section of the law defunct: Section 5.
The Department of Justice primarily used Section 5 as a tool to ensure minority populations were represented in legislative bodies. But what now? Will we see minority districts redistricted away?
Sharyn O'Halloran is a professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University. Her research suggests that the minority districts created by the Voting Rights Act have serious drawbacks, but so does the process we're left with: Long, expensive court battles that shift the burden of proof onto minorities instead of the government.