Politics

Section 4 of Voting Rights Act ruled unconstitutional by Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, striking down a key part of a landmark Civil Rights-era law that protected voters from discrimination and has been called “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom" by President Lyndon Johnson

By a vote of 5-4, the court ruled that Section 4, which used data from the 1960s and 1970s to provide a "coverage formula" for Section 5, could "no longer be used."

Section 4 set out the formula to determine which states and regions discriminated against voters based on race or had low voter registration.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act says that those designated areas need to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court before they make any changes to their voting laws. Most of the states subject to Section 5 are in the southern United States — including Alabama, which filed the case. 

The decision on Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, with Justice Clarence Thomas concurring. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

"Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically," the ruling, which can be found in its entirety here, read.    

"Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, '[v]oter turnout and registration rates' in covered jurisdictions now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels. ...Yet the Act has not eased restrictions or narrowed the scope of section 4’s coverage formula along the way. Instead those extraordinary and unprecedented features have been reauthorized as if nothing has changed, and they have grown even stronger." 

The ruling leaves the Voting Rights Act's Section 5 in place. However, Section 5 largely loses its significance without Section 4.

As the SCOTUS blog explained, "Although Section 5 survives, it will have no actual effect unless and until Congress can enact a new statute to determine who should be covered by it."

Roberts, who wrote the decision, said, "Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in [Section] 2. We issue no holding on [Section] 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions."

Ginsburg, who wrote the dissent, said, "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."

President Obama expressed his disappointment in the ruling Tuesday. 

"I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans," said the President.

"Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also expressed concern over the court's decision.  

"The Supreme Court ruling takes the most powerful tool our nation has to defend minority voting rights out of commission," said Sherrilyn Ifill, the President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The Court has left millions of minority voters without the mechanism that has allowed them to stop voting discrimination before it occurs."  

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi expressed her support for the SCOTUS decision: 

Other lawmakers and politicians came out strongly on both sides of the ruling: