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Supreme Court Strikes Down Integral Portion of Voting Rights Act

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling on the case Shelby County v. Holder,voted to strike down an integral portion of the 1965 Voting Rights Act on Tuesday. The vote split along partisan lines with the justices appointed by Republican Presidents forming the majority and justices appointed by Democratic Presidents dissenting.

The sections of the Voting Rights Act in question are Sections 4 and 5 which, in Section 4, prohibits voting discrimination based on race by setting up a formula to give certain states and voting districts with a history of racial discrimination at the polls special scrutiny in regards to their voting laws. In Section 5, those states and voting districts that were specified are required to obtain permission from the federal government before changing their election laws.

It was common practice in the Jim Crow South to pass discriminatory legislation to make it harder for blacks to vote knowing that by the time a challenge to the law had worked its way up the chain to the federal courts and been struck down, the election would be over and the damage done. The states and voting districts would then go to work passing new slightly different discriminatory laws and the cycle would repeat.

In 1965, instead of declaring specific practices put into place by states as discriminatory and therefore illegal, the Voting Rights Act aimed to combat voting discrimination by preempting the implementation of discriminatory laws in the first place. This strategy of requiring districts with a history of racial discrimination to obtain permission from the federal government before changing or implementing new election laws became known as ‘preclearance’.

In Tuesdays ruling, Section 5 which requires certain states or electoral districts to get preclearance before changing their election laws was upheld however, Section 4 which determines which states and electoral districts require that special scrutiny was struck down as unconstitutional, therefore effectively gutting both sections. The ruling does leave the door open for Congress to pass an updated formula for determining which electoral districts get special scrutiny, though most political analysts do not anticipate any progress on that in the near future.

Argument From the Right: The formula for determining which States and jurisdictions deserve special scrutiny is outdated and therefore no longer valid.

The crux of the argument on the right is that because the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 and the most recent time the formula for determining special scrutiny was updated was in 1975, using this outdated formula to single out certain states and jurisdictions is unconstitutional.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. in the majority opinion wrote: “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”

Justice Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, went one step further and called for the court to strike down both sections 4 and 5 as unconstitutional: “Indeed, circumstances in the covered jurisdictions can no longer be characterized as “exceptional” or “unique.” “The extensive pattern of discrimination that led the Court to previously uphold §5 as enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment no longer exists… Section 5 is, thus, unconstitutional.”

Argument From the Left: These provisions of the Voting Rights Act have, and continue to be, effective in combating racial discrimination at the voting booth.

The liberal argument contends that even though the formula has not been updated in nearly 40 years, these sections of the Voting Rights Act have succeeded in reducing discrimination in the specified states. While undoubtedly adjustments to the formula for determining which jurisdictions deserve special scrutiny and preclearance do need to be made by Congress, the Supreme Court stepping in and gutting the Voting Rights Act is the wrong course of action.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her dissenting opinion made this analogy: “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.”

So which Side holds the Political Highground?     The Left.

While the formal Civil Rights Movement has ended – civil rights, voting rights, and racial discrimination are pressing issues to this day. Even though the formula has not been updated since 1975, the Voting Rights Act as a whole was reauthorized (with an overwhelming majority) in Congress as recently as 2006 and upheld by the Supreme Court as recently as 2009.

We have seen attempts to pass legislation to make it harder to vote in the 2010 and 2012 elections. While these efforts, such as requiring new forms of ID to vote or cutting early voting hours aren’t explicitly trying to make it harder for a particular race of people to vote – these new voting laws disproportionally affect people of color as well as other groups that tend to lean Democratic.

The conservatives assertion that these voter suppression laws are being put into place in districts not covered by the Voting Rights Act is correct – but that is because of the Voting Rights Act. Take away the special scrutiny in these states and I guarantee we will see new laws making voting harder introduced.

It’s no coincidence that nearly all of the new laws that make voting harder are passed in states with GOP controlled State Legislatures and are signed into law by Republican Governors. This is a thinly veiled attempt to win the game by changing the rules from an ideologically stagnant Republican Party that is quickly losing the popular vote as demographics and attitudes shift but their outdated policies and ideas remain unchanged.

This ruling has only removed another road block in the Republican Party’s ongoing crusade to make it harder for people who don’t agree with them to vote. Unfortunately in order to undo the damage done by the Supreme Court, we have to rely on Congress. Uh-Oh.

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