In a momentous 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court Tuesday invalidated a major provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that mandated federal oversight of election laws in states with a history of discriminatory practices.
The justices concluded that section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was no longer applicable, noting that voter turnout models show that minority voters are on par or exceed white turnout in many of the very states and localities that had been put under federal watch in 1965.
"Congress’s failure to modernize the law in light of the enormous improvements in minority electoral opportunities in the states covered by the law rendered it unconstitutional," Chief Justice John R. Roberts wrote in the majority opinion of the court.
"Congress' failure … leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) unconstitutional,” Roberts wrote.
“This decision restores an important constitutional order to our system of government which requires that all 50 states are entitled to equal dignity and sovereignty,” AEI Visiting Fellow Ed Blum said after the court's ruling.
“Our nation’s laws must apply uniformly to each state and jurisdiction,” he said.
Blum, who is director of The Project on Fair Representation (POFR), a not-for-profit legal defense foundation based in Alexandria, Va., provided counsel to Shelby County, Ala., which sued the federal government in 2010 claiming that the voting rights rules unfairly singled out jurisdictions based on outdated data.
“We are grateful the Supreme Court recognized that our vibrant and diverse county no longer requires federal supervision of our elections,” Frank C, Ellis, Jr., the county attorney for Shelby County, Ala., said.
The entirety of nine states -- Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia -- and 69 other jurisdictions in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, Michigan and South Dakota were originally covered by the law, which abolished barriers to voting and required the jurisdictions to get "preclearance" from the Justice Department to make any changes to voting rules.
The formula … can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance," Roberts wrote, noting that discriminatory practices are still forbidden by the law.
Originally scheduled to expire in five years after it was enacted in 1965, the law had been renewed four times without any changes to acknowledge the progress made in minority voting. The 2006 vote in Congress, which received overwhelming support, put it in force for another 25 years.
At the time the law was enacted, it had real impact. The racial disparity in voting in 1964 showed a 49.9 percentage-point gap in Alabama. But by 2004, that number was 0.9, according to a chart compiled by the Supreme Court from House and Senate compilations of Census data. In 2012, black turnout in Alabama was 3.5 percentage points higher than white turnout, according to the US Census.
"There is no valid reason to insulate the coverage formula from review merely because it was previously enacted 40 years ago. If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula," Roberts wrote.
“The justices correctly acknowledged that the covered jurisdictions should no longer be punished by the federal government for conditions that existed over 40 years ago,” Ellis said. “The South is an altogether different place than it was in 1965.”
“The Supreme Court today confirmed that there are no meaningful differences in minority voting opportunities between the covered and non-covered jurisdictions," Blum said. "The American South long ago laid down the burdens of minority disfranchisement and has integrated African Americans fully into its political life.
“The Supreme Court’s opinion is a great testament to the character of the American people who have labored to fulfill the guarantee of racial equality in voting,” he added.