Deadlocked Congress The Only Hope for Voting Rights Act

Tags: Supreme Court, voting, Voting Rights Act, congress, Politics, Marjorie McAtee

Marjorie McAtee by Marjorie McAtee

President Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
at the signing of the Voting Rights Act

In what some have called “a blow to democracy,” the Supreme Court today voted 5-to-4 to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of the 1965 civil rights legislation that protected minority voting rights. The court left Section 5, the part of the legislation that requires areas with a history of voter discrimination to seek federal preclearance before changing their voting laws, intact. Without the guidance provided by Section 4, which names the districts that require preclearance, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is meaningless.

Chief Justice John Roberts, along with Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia formed the majority opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer formed the dissenting opinion.

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

Congress may continue to impose federal oversight on districts where it feels minority voting rights are compromised, but it must do so based on more recent data. When Congress last renewed the Voting Rights Act, in 2006, the Supreme Court maintains, it relied on election data from 1972.

The court included with its ruling a chart that compares white and black voter registration rates in 1965 with white and black voter registration rates in 2004 in the six states originally placed under the preclearance requirement. In Alabama in 1965, 69 percent of whites were registered to vote, compared to only 19 percent of blacks. By 2004, 74 percent of whites in the state were registered voters, compared with 73 percent of blacks. The court majority opinion maintains that this data proves that “things have changed dramatically” in the South in the decades since Jim Crow laws were used to disenfranchise blacks.

In 2006, when Congress last renewed the legislation, it did so after holding hearings on the current state of racial discrimination against voters. Civil rights leaders maintain that the Voting Rights Act remained vital throughout the 2012 election, when it was used to stymie a new generation of voter identification requirements and limitations on early voting.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its 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…the record for the 2006 reauthorization makes abundantly clear [that] second generation barriers to minority voting rights have emerged in the covered jurisdictions as substitutes for the first-generation barriers that originally triggered preclearance in those jurisdictions.”

Though Congress may reestablish the preclearance requirements set forth in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Acts using up-to-date data and criteria, there remains significant doubt as to whether it will do so.   These fears justified with the fact that 112th Congress was the least effective congress in US history; deadlocked by partisanship and passing only 219 bills into law.  

The Voting Rights Act was first signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and has been renewed four times, most recently in 2006, when the Senate passed it 98-0. That renewal would have seen the legislation up for renewal again in 2031. 

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