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Key Part of Voting Rights Act Struck Down

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 25, 2013 11:05 AM

The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a central portion of the Voting Rights Act, effectively ending the practice in which some states with a history of racial discrimination must receive clearance from the federal government before changing voting laws.

The decision to render the 48-year-old federal law ineffective is a major blow to civil rights activists.

Far from unanimous, the vote was 5-4, with conservative-leaning justices in the majority and liberal-leaning justices in the minority, reports The New York Times.

Section 4 Unconstitutional

The majority held that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was unconstitutional. The section includes a formula that determines which states must receive preapproval to change their voting laws.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the formula is outdated. More specifically, he said the coverage formula that Congress used when it most recently reauthorized the law in 2006 should have been updated.

"There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions," the Chief Justice wrote.

What the Chief Justice means is that the original coverage formula was meant to combat racially restrictive voting policies of the 1960s, but that it doesn't apply to present day anymore.

Roberts also took aim at the preapproval requirement only affecting certain jurisdictions -- mainly states in the South due to their legacy of slavery. The nine fully covered states were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, according to Reuters; some counties and townships in other states were also included. Justice Roberts said all states should enjoy equal sovereignty.

Section 5 Rendered Useless

The Court left Section 5 alone, which allows the federal government to require preapproval. But it's useless without Section 4, which determines which states would need to receive approval.

The only way Section 5 can regain relevance is if Congress passes a new bill for determining which states would be covered.

Congress could pass another coverage formula, but they'd have to (a) agree on something, and (b) find present-day reasons for it.

Considering how partisan Congress is now, that's a pretty tall order.

Critics of Section 5 say it is a unique federal intrusion on state sovereignty and a badge of shame for the affected jurisdictions that is no longer justified. They point to high voter registration rates among blacks and the re-election of a black president as proof that the provision is no longer needed, reports the Times.

Civil rights leaders, on the other hand, say the law played an important role in the 2012 election, with courts relying on it to block voter identification requirements and cutbacks on early voting.

Potential Impact

The ruling is a heavy blow to civil rights advocates, who believe the decision could lead to an increase in attempts to deter minorities from voting. They say that 31 proposals made by covered jurisdictions to modify election laws have been blocked by the Justice Department under Section 5 since the law was re-enacted in 2006, according to Reuters.

The issue of voting rights remains prominent in the United States. Just last week, the Supreme Court struck down an Arizona law that required people registering to vote in federal elections to show proof of citizenship, a victory for activists who said it discouraged Native Americans and Latinos from voting.

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