2013 June 25

Supreme Court Guts Voting Rights Act: “Shelby County v. Holder”


The Supreme Court on this day declared unconstitutional key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, eliminating what most experts regard as the crucial enforcement mechanism of the law. At issue were Section 5 and Section 4b. Section 5 requires certain states or local jurisdictions to obtain pre-clearance from the Justice Department about any change in voter registration requirements or voting district composition. Section 4b prescribes the formula to be used to determine which jurisdictions are covered by Section 5. The data in Section 4b is used to identify jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination in voting. The Supreme Court held that the 4b formula was based on data that are 40 years old and therefore no longer relevant to current conditions. The Court ruled 5–4 that the result is a constitutionally impermissible burden on the affected jurisdictions, based on principles of federalism’s equal sovereignty of the states. The Court did not declare Section 5 unconstitutional but, without the Section 4b formula, no state would be subject to Section 5 (unless, that is, Congress enacts a new formula).

The 1965 Voting Rights Act, signed into law on August 6, 1965, has arguably been one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by Congress. It ended the historic disenfranchisement in the states of the Old Confederacy, with the result that thousands of African-American officials were elected to office at all levels of government. The law had been renewed several times since its initial enactment. Conservatives sought for decades to have the law weakened. Most notably, President Ronald Reagan promised to not seek renewal, but eventually signed a renewal, on June 30, 1982, in the face of overwhelming public and Congressional support for the law. The political context of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision was a concerted effort by states all across the country to impose requirements (such as Voter ID laws), which were likely to reduce voting by persons of color and poor people.

Justice John Roberts for the majority: “But history did not end in 1965. By the time the Act was reauthorized in 2006, there had been 40 more years of it. In assessing the ‘current need’ for a preclearance system that treats States differently from one another today, that history cannot be ignored. During that time, largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers. And yet the coverage formula that Congress reauthorized in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (joined by three other Justices) in dissent: “In truth, the evolution of voting discrimination into more subtle second-generation barriers is powerful evidence that a remedy as effective as preclearance remains vital to protect minority voting rights and prevent backsliding.”

Follow a timeline on the 1965 Voting Rights Act: https://www.aclu.org/timeline-history-voting-rights-act

Read: Chandler Davidson and Bernard Groffman, Quiet Revolution in the South: The Impact of the Voting Rights Act, 1965-1990 (1994)

Learn more: Ari Berman, Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America (2015)

Learn more about the case at the Brennan Center for Justice: http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting-rights-act-resource-page

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