The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines Tuesday that a portion of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional unless Congress creates a new formula for determining which areas of the country need to have federal oversight in running their elections. While conservatives cheer the decision, civil rights groups are decrying it as setting back their progress.
The Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965 to help prevent racial discrimination at the polls, was last re-authorized in 2006, but lawmakers did not update the formula used to determine which localities – mostly in the South – warranted additional oversight.
In the most recent election, several state laws – including South Carolina – requiring voters to carry identification to the polls were suspended from taking effect because they were enacted in areas that triggered federal approval.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority decision, said voting discrimination still exists and the concept that some localities should receive additional scrutiny was constitutional, but that the mechanism for determining those must be updated before the law can again be enforced.
"Voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that," he wrote. "The question is whether the [Voting Rights Act]'s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the states, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements."
Roberts said that improvements had been made as a result of the Voting Rights Act, but that it also is a sweeping measure that promotes federal government over states' rights.
"The act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process," he said. "[But] coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures states by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been banned nationwide for over 40 years and voter registration and turnout numbers in the covered States have risen dramatically in the years since."
He admonished Congress for not updating the formula during its re-authorization of the law in 2006, but encouraged them to do so now.
In her dissent against the decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the very fact that the voting law had improved things is a reason to keep it in place.
"Congress approached the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA with great care and seriousness; the same cannot be said of the court's opinion today," she wrote. "The court makes no genuine attempt to engage with the massive legislative record that Congress assembled. Instead, it relies on increases in voter registration and turnout as if that were the whole story."
Ginsburg, in her particularly sharply worded opinion, said the court's majority opinion resulted from "utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective."
"The court appears to believe that the VRA's success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed," she wrote. "With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself. The same assumption – that the problem could be solved when particular methods of voting discrimination are identified and eliminated – was indulged and proved wrong repeatedly prior to the VRA's enactment."
Jon Greenbaum, chief counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, said the court decision amounted to gutting one of the country's top civil rights laws.
"Today's decision is a blow to democracy," he said in a release. "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."
But Hans von Spakovsky , a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation ,said the law had outlived its purpose.
"It is a victim of its own success and is no longer needed," he said in a release. "Despite claims to the contrary, Americans will continue to be protected from discrimination by the other permanent provisions of the Voting Rights Act."
Jessica Levinson, a Loyola Law School professor, said the court's faith is misplaced in placing the ball in Congress' hands.
"The Court is, once again, asking Congress to do something – if history is any indication, Congress will fail to act and that failure could seal Section 5's fate once and for all," she said in a release.