The Supreme Court on Tuesday effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, ruling that Congress had not provided adequate justification for subjecting nine states, mostly in the South, to federal oversight.
“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,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. “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.”
President Obama, whose election as the nation’s first black president was cited by critics of the law as evidence that it was no longer needed, said that he was,
“Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent,” he said.
The decision will have immediate practical consequences. Changes in voting procedures that had required advance federal approval, including voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation.
“With today’s decision,” said Greg Abbott, Texas’ attorney general, “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.”
“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,” he wrote. “It cannot simply rely on the past.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was one of the towering legislative achievements of the civil rights movement, and Chief Justice Roberts said its “strong medicine” was the right response to “entrenched racial discrimination.” At the time it was first enacted, he said, black voter turnout in the South stood at 6.4 percent in Mississippi. In the most recent election, by contrast, “African-American voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six states originally covered by Section 5.”
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