Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Shelby County v. Holder: The US Supreme Court's Ruling on the Voting Rights Act

On Tuesday, June 25 in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Shelby vs. Holder. This case revolved around Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which established the requirement of federal oversight to changes in voting requirements for a number of mostly southern states with a history of racial discrimination. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act identified which states were to need federal preclearance while Section 5 established the need of preclearance and federal oversight to changes in state level voting laws. Without Section 4 in place, Section 5 becomes irrelevant, as there are no states identified as requiring oversight.  Some changes to state voter laws include voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, and voter redistricting lines, all of which will disproportionately affect African Americans living in urban environments.  Now, changes to voting laws will only be subject to “after-the-fact” litigation.  In other words, these states can now implement changes but they can’t be subject to legal challenges until after election periods.  Hours after this decision was announced, officials in Texas, North Carolina, and Mississippi pledged to immediately implement photo identification laws for voting. Florida will likely set new early voting rules and Georgia will implement new voting districts.

Below I offer some statements on this decision from the court (courtesy of the NYTimes):
“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.”

She [Ginsberg] said the focus of the Voting Rights Act had properly changed from “first-generation barriers to ballot access” to “second-generation barriers” like racial gerrymandering and laws requiring at-large voting in places with a sizable black minority. She said Section 5 [which becomes irrelevant with the removal of Section 4] had been effective in thwarting such efforts.

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