Storm follows Voting Rights Act decision

The Supreme Court struck down a key piece of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) on Tuesday, overturning a decades-old policy designed to protect minorities from discrimination.

In a 5-4 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court struck down a formula used to determine whether state and local governments must get permission from the federal government before changing their voting laws.

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Congress first passed the “preclearance” requirements in 1965 to prevent states with a history of discrimination from disenfranchising black voters. But the formula has outlived its usefulness, Roberts said.

“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.

President Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” in the ruling and called on Congress to quickly restore the provisions the court struck down.



“Today’s decision … upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent,” Obama said in a statement.


Congressional Democrats sharply criticized the court’s ruling and said they would look for a legislative remedy. But Congress is highly unlikely to pass a new version of the preclearance requirements, and state officials said they would quickly revive election law changes that had been blocked under the Voting Rights Act.

“This decision represents a serious setback to voting rights and has the potential to negatively affect millions of Americans across the country,” Attorney General Eric Holder said.

Nine states and more than 50 counties were required to obtain preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting procedures, based on their histories of racial discrimination.

Congress has reauthorized the preclearance requirements several times, most recently in 2006. But not since 1975 had lawmakers changed the formula for determining whether preclearance was necessary.

Congress put an unfair burden on the states by renewing a formula written so long ago, the Supreme Court said.

“History did not end in 1965. By the time the Act was reauthorized in 2006, there had been 40 more years of it. In assessing the ‘current need’ for a preclearance system that treats States differently from one another today, that history cannot be ignored,” Roberts wrote.


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The court upheld the preclearance requirements in 1996 and again in 2009, but Roberts said the policy became unconstitutional since then.

In a blistering dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg accused the court of “hubris” for overturning a formula that Congress decided was the best way to prevent discrimination at the polls.

“In my judgment, the court errs egregiously by overriding Congress’ decision,” Ginsburg said.

The court did not rule on the broader question of whether preclearance requirements in general are unconstitutional. It rendered the existing program useless, but left the door open for Congress to devise a new formula based on more current data.

“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. It cannot rely simply on the past,” Roberts wrote.

Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006 with enormous bipartisan majorities — 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate.  But moving a new bill through today’s intensely polarized Congress could be far more difficult.

“I am deeply concerned that Congress will not have the will to fix what the Supreme Court has broken,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement who was beaten at the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Ala.

Congressional Democrats vowed to quickly begin drafting a new formula to replace the one the court struck down. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said he would take “immediate action” toward a “reconstituted” Voting Rights Act.

But few Republicans appeared eager to help. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, said the Senate “ought to let it sit for a while” before attempting to write a new formula.

Many other prominent Republicans, including Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), were conspicuously silent in the immediate aftermath of the ruling.

However, some members from the states affected welcomed the decision. 

In a statement, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.) said that the ruling “simply acknowledges the progress that has been made since 1965.”

Critics of the court’s decision called it an example of judicial activism, saying the justices should have deferred to Congress’s decision to leave the original preclearance standards in place.

“I can tell you that whatever coverage formula is developed, I can’t imagine that my state, Alabama, would not continue to fall under it,” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) said.

Ginsburg, in her dissent, said progress in the South is a reason to keep the Voting Rights Act intact — not a sign it has become obsolete.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Ginsburg wrote in her opinion.

Ginsburg said preclearance in areas with a history of discrimination is the best way to prevent “second-generation” forms of racial bias — for example, moving polling places at the last minute, cutting off early voting in certain areas or imposing new voter ID laws.

“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” she wrote.

Rep. James Clyburn (R-S.C.) echoed that argument. States that were formerly bound by the preclearance requirement will now be free to pursue voting changes that otherwise would have been blocked, he said.

“I can envision, at the beginning of the next legislative session, a lot of states, including my home state, will be taking a look and probably will be having some redistricting,” Clyburn said.

States that saw their voting changes blocked by the Voting Rights Act welcomed Tuesday’s ruling.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said he would move ahead with controversial changes, noting that the preclearance rules helped block the state’s effort to redraw its congressional districts. (Holder cited Texas’s redistricting as an example of the preclearance requirements working.)

“With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately. Redistricting maps passed by the legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government,” Abbott said.

South Carolina’s attorney general also praised the decision. A judge said last year that the state, which was covered by the preclearance requirements, had to delay a new voter ID law because adopting it as planned would disenfranchise minorities.

— Mike Lillis contributed.

— Published at 10:19 a.m. and last updated at 8:32 p.m.