SCOTUS Voting Rights Act Decision: Justices Strike Down Key Section

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  • Supreme Court Voting Rights June 2013
    National Field Director Rev. Charles White speaks in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, June 25, 2013.
  • Voting US lines NH Getty Images
    Voters casting ballots in New Hampshire.
  • Voting US New Hampshire
    Voting in New Hampshire.
  •  An electronic voting booth is seen in a polling station in Alexandria, Virginia
    An electronic voting booth is seen in a polling station in Alexandria, Va., Nov. 2, 2010.
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The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a section of the Voting Rights Act that mandates states with a history of racial discrimination seek federal approval before changing their election laws. In a 5-4 ruling, the justices found Section 4 of the act unconstitutional and are now leaving it up to Congress to determine which states and localities may need closer election monitoring.

“Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting,” the opinion read. “We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.”

Americans were eagerly awaiting the high court’s decision on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Congress had made it illegal to discriminate against African-American voters and prevent them from voting through roadblocks such as literacy tests. Under that section, places with a history of such discrimination -- mostly southern states -- were required to undergo a process known as “preclearance” and get the approval of the federal government before making any changes to their voting procedures. Section 5 was to only last for five years. However, Congress extended it in 2006, for another 25 years. Shelby County in Alabama was challenging the constitutionality of the preclearance requirement.

What the justices did was to strike down Section 4 of the act, which established a formula by which to identify those states and localities and apply more rigorous solutions where necessary. One of those solutions was to require preclearance before changing the election laws. The high court now ruled the formula for making such determination can no longer be used to subject places such as Alabama to preclearance.

Section 5 covered nine states, many of which are in the South. They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

“Our country has changed,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion, “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.”

Not everyone is happy with the court's decision. President Barack Obama expressed disappointment shortly after the ruling. According to Politico, the president called on Congress to pass new laws guaranteeing voting rights.

“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. “And while today's decision is a setback, it doesn't represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination.”

Similarly, some lawyers are uncomfortable with the court's opinion. Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the decision “effectively gutted” one of America's most important 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,” he said in a statement. “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.”

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