Supreme Court Guts Voting Rights Act

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This post originally appeared on Colorlines.com.


Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., center, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., right, co-chairs of the Civil Rights Taskforce of the Congressional Black Caucus, join other members of the House to express disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision on Shelby County v. Holder that invalidates Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Lewis, a prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, recalled being attacked and beaten trying to help people in Mississippi to register and vote in the 1960's. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., center, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., right, co-chairs of the Civil Rights Taskforce of the Congressional Black Caucus, join other members of the House to express disappointment in the Supreme Court's decision on Shelby County v. Holder that invalidates Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Tuesday, June 25, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Lewis, a prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960's, recalled being attacked and beaten trying to help people in Mississippi to register and vote in the 1960's. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which determines what states and jurisdictions are covered by Section 5, is invalid after less than 50 years of protecting African Americans and people of color. The currently covered areas are places that historically have disenfranchised people of color, or those for whom English is their second language. But Chief Justice John Roberts has ruled that the formula, which was last updated in the late 1960s-early 1970s, must be updated by Congress so that it covers areas that violate voting rights today. Chief Roberts, who’s had a beef with the Voting Rights Act since the early 1980s, wrote in the majority opinion:

“In assessing the ‘current need’ for a preclearance system treating States differently from one another today, history since 1965  cannot be ignored. The Fifteenth Amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future. To serve that purpose, Congress—if it is to divide the States—must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. … Congress did not use that record to fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”

This is not a total loss for the Voting Rights Act. Section Five can still stand if Congress is able to fix the formula so that it covers areas they consider presently running afoul of voting rights.

Meanwhile, here are the currently covered states this ruling now affects:

  • North Carolina: Republicans, who control both state legislative chambers and the governor’s office, have proposed and/or passed bills that would require a narrow set of photo identification cards to vote, that would cut early voting, potentially penalize the parents of college students who vote away from their parents’ home, and would implement probably the strictest felony disenfranchisement law in the nation. None of these are law, but they would have had to pass federal preclearance review under Section 5. Almost 500,000 North Carolinians lack the ID needed to vote under the proposed law, a third of them African Americans. Hundreds of North Carolina citizens have been arrested over the past couple months while protesting these laws.
  • Virginia: Passed a voter ID bill that survived federal preclearance review last year, but then doubled down and passed an even stricter photo voter ID law this year, which had not yet been submitted for Section 5 review. Now it doesn’t need to. Meanwhile, it’s estimated up to 870,000 Virginians lack the ID needed to vote under the new law, a disproportionate number of whom are African Americans.
  • Alabama: Passed a photo voter ID law and a proof-of-citizenship voter registration law in 2011 that isn’t scheduled to go into effect until 2014. It had been submitted for Section 5 review, but was withdrawn a month ago. Now it won’t be reviewed for discriminatory effects.
  • Mississippi: No African American has won a statewide office in this state (nor in any of the states above except Virginia) and a voter ID bill it passed last year may make it harder for black candidates to get elected when those most likely to be disenfranchised by this law are African Americans.

Other states like Texas and South Carolina, which Section 5 reviews blocked from passing racially discriminatory voting laws, could attempt to reinstate those laws. But as Justin Levitt, an election law professor at Loyola Law School, told Colorlines, it’s not just the states we need to be worried about.

“One of the most important pieces of Section 5 is that it prevents local efforts to discriminate in the allocation of local political power: districts for city council and county commission and local judicial offices that really affect the responsiveness of representation and justice in local democracies, in all of the kitchen-table issues that affect our lives most tangibly,” said Levitt. “When Texas passes a discriminatory statewide law, there are lots of voices in the fight, but when a tiny municipality in southwest Texas does the same, it gets a lot less attention.”

Civil rights groups that have fought both for the Voting Rights Act to be created, and to defend it in the decades after have expressed disappointment. Before the Supreme Court’s ruling, Natasha Korgaonkar, assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., the entity that argued the case, told Colorlines that they were “optimistic” that Section 5 would be upheld, and if not that Congress would have to “step in.”

Meanwhile, Jotaka Eaddy, senior director of NAACP’s voting rights program told Colorlines that the Court’s decision “will not change our game plan.” Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights law organization Advancement Project, called the decision “a huge loss” and that “the biggest harm is to the voters.” Her organization’s work would not be deterred though, she said.

“We will have to continue to do what we did in 2012 and bring our own affirmative cases,” said Browne-Dianis. “We really will have to step up our efforts to do more affirmative litigation, which is a problem because the federal government has been an important player in stopping discrimination before it happens,” through the Voting Rights Act.

Advancement Project and the NAACP have been embroiled in the civil rights struggle against North Carolina’s proposed voter suppression laws. Browne-Dianis said that this decision “could hasten the changes that are being proposed in North Carolina to make it harder to vote.”

In Texas, where the state filed its own challenge to Section 5 with the Supreme Court, Christina Sanders, state director of the Texas League of Young Voters Education Fund, said, “This [case] shows us that it is important, now more than ever, to educate our neighbors and communities about building local power to ensure that all votes are protected.”

In Florida, where voter waiting lines for African Americans were the longest in the nation, laws that cut early voting were blocked by Section 5 challenges. Election law professor Dan Smith, of University of Florida, said that challenges to discriminatory laws, like the cuts to early voting that disproportionally impacted black voters, would be more difficult without Section 5.

“We’re only talking about five counties out of 67,” that are covered by Section 5 in Florida. “But when you have [Section Five] as a vehicle you can challenge the entire state law because of the uniform election code. With respect to the voting rights issues in Florida it has been a major piece of legislation that has protected the rights of minorities and I fear for that leverage to be pulled away from voting rights activists.”

Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, and co-author of their recent report “If Section 5 Falls: New Voting Implications,” told Colorlines that they will  be working with a coalition of voters, advocates and members of Congress to come up with new measures “that provide robust and ample protections for voters.”


Brentin Mockis a New Orleans-based journalist who serves as Colorlines.com’s Reporting Fellow on Voting Rights, covering the challenges presented by new voter ID laws, suppression of voter registration drives, and other attempts to limit electoral power of people of color. In his previous position as senior editor at The Loop 21, Brentin also covered electoral politics with a significant amount of reporting on voter ID issues. Follow him on Twitter at @bmockaveli, and Colorlines at @colorlines.
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  • mollyandausten

    Here in Florida we’ve also experienced increasingly restrictive voting requirements. All of them designed to limit and restrict those individuals who would vote Democrat.

  • felliniquilter

    Well, my local news in Austin,TX, reported that the TX legislature is actively writing a more severely limiting voter requirements than the previous one of a year ago that was struck down by the VRA. More requirements to show proof of identity; and they are gerrymandering the state so that Hispanics will lose 4 to 5 possible reps for them. It has been all of 8 hrs since the SCOTUS decision was announced.

  • Anonymous

    What’s happened at the Supreme Court just makes it more clear that the so called justices go to work wearing their Republican campaign shirts underneath those robes.

    When Republicans want an election decided their pals in the SCOTUS swoop in and dispense with the law, end the recount, and hand the election to their Republican friends.

    When Republicans find themselves losing the media battle their pals in the SCOTUS swoop in and dispense with 100 years of laws governing campaign spending to allow unlimited contributions to the campaigns of their Republican friends.

    When Republicans find themselves outmatched by a minority candidate due to overwhelming support from minority voters the SCOTUS swoops in and dispenses with obstacles to discriminatory election laws — ending the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act.

    The SCOTUS is not impartial and does not act as a check against the powers of the legislative and executive branches of government. The SCOTUS has simply become a corrupt extension of the Republican party.

    The justices responsible for this partisan subversion of the United States government should be stripped of their powers and exiled from the country.

  • Stephena Held

    If they can’t win an election, they will try to steal the election. BE VIGILANT!

  • steve

    i’ve been listening to all of this and one thing on my mind is this: back in the 90′s the supreme court struck down the line item veto claiming it was unconstitutional and that only congress{house and/or senate} had the right to take a bill or law line by line. they ruled no other part of the federal g’vt had that right it was only rexerved for the coongress. but isnt that exactly what the SCOTUS just did is do a basic line item veto on the voting rights act. either they violated tthe constitution yrs ago with line item veto ruling either that or they just violated it on the ruling concerning the voting rights act. they cant have it both way. whatever way you look at it they violated the constitution at least according to their own decision and ruling. what they should have done is bounce it back to the congress with the sections noted with a ruling to have congress bring into the standard they ruled yrs ago. like i said earlier they either violated the constution yrs ago with their ruling or they just violated it now on the voting rights act by ruling what they decided yrs ago. so which is it, they cant have it both ways. i feel they just violated their own ruling and determination from back in clinton era and therefore their present ruling isnt valid

  • Anonymous

    This is easy. Enforce it in the states with Republican majorities in their legislatures and Reopublican governors.
    It is very sad that John Lewis and John Conyers have gone through this.

  • Greg Paige

    Yeah, Steve . . . no double standards like we have now, but ruled it illegal !

  • guest

    They should have independent intensive psychiatric exams before they are seated. That should also be a requirement for congress and the presidency. People taking pills now; alcoholics governing; it’s madness.

  • Anonymous

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    Well, my local news in Austin,TX,
    reported that the TX legislature is actively writing a more severely
    limiting voter requirements than the previous one of a year ago that was
    struck down by the VRA. More requirements to show proof of identity;
    and they are gerrymandering the state so that Hispanics will lose 4 to 5
    possible reps for them. It has been all of 8 hrs since the SCOTUS
    decision was announced.

  • Anonymous

    I think instead of nullifying the voting rights act due to the objections of the southern states that it currently affects, it should be applied nation wide. The South doesn’t have a monopoly on disenfranchising voters.

  • R G

    letting the most retarded states dictate to the others is beyond stupid.

  • Anonymous

    During the last election I was amazed at the energy that went into the GOP disenfranchisement effort. I didn’t know there could be so many ways to disenfranchise citizens. I think it took all of 30 minutes — if that — for the southern states to crank up their stalled disenfranchisement programs.

  • Anonymous

    Does anyone know where I can find a map online showing the states that already have new voting requirements in the works this week? I’ve seen a couple on TV, but I’d love to find one from the last few days. It’s great to compare to the map of places that were covered under the VRA. Pretty much the same.

  • deano

    Imagine a country demanding a voter ID…how about we adopt a lot of the third world policies of marking your finger with permanent INK to make sure you dont vote more than once…think the Liberals would allow that?

  • Anonymous

    Voter fraud comes more from stuffing ballot boxes than voting twice. There is very little voter fraud! The ID is just a law that makes it difficult to get the ID to vote. If you ever went into the DMV and stood for hours in line for a driver’s license, you might have some idea on how difficult this is on someone elderly and infirm.

  • Anonymous

    Well, it is mostly a republican court, with most of the justices with a background in corporate law. Disastrous for the public.

  • Anonymous

    Many of the retirees are well off, so vote republican. They are stuck in a yesteryear rut where they believe republicans are good for business. Maybe they will wake up before it is too late. If we get another republican in the White House or in control of either house in congress, and we will either be stuck again with a President who makes wars for corporate profit and exports more jobs or with another do nothing legislative branch.

  • pawwed

    If you can’t prove who you are or where you live you should not vote. This does not seem to be that diffcult to me. If you are illegal you should not be able to vote. If you are not where you are supposed to be you dont vote. I have to show an ID to write a check, use my credit card, drive a car, buy alcohol, buy a firearm, go fishing, go hunting, and VOTE. Why the heck do people think that an ID and voting is such a hardship. If it is that important to you get off your butt and get and ID. Redicilous how this country cowers to whinning of a few and punishes the many for standing up to it.