Tuesday’s ruling from the Supreme Court does not change the United States’ historic commitment to voting rights. Instead, the 5-4 majority rightly said that Congress failed to take account of the dramatic changes in the South since the 1965 passage of the original Voting Rights Act.
What the court struck down was only a small, and we believe relatively insignificant portion of the Voting Rights Act. Since the 1960s, nine states and parts of six others — mostly, the South — have been required to clear even small changes in voting rules with the U.S. Justice Department.
This “pre-clearance” requirement has been renewed by Congress without taking into account the dramatic changes in the South since the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s. In a 5-4 opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court held in an Alabama case that Congress could require pre-clearance if the law documents the need for it in specific jurisdictions.
Even a modest change, such as merging two voting precincts where population shifts have occurred required a submission to the Justice Department. We see much of the pre-clearance requirements as needless bureaucracy.
At one time, when racial discrimination was widespread in the South, local authorities did indeed pervert the rules to keep black citizens from voting, or reduce their influence in elections.
That was wrong. The court’s ruling does not inhibit the U.S. government’s power to go to court to prevent future abuses.
As Roberts said, “our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.”
The problem with the ruling? For those challenging a local or state government decision on voting rights grounds, the easier path is with a complaint to the Justice Department, which can use pre-clearance to block the local law.
Pre-clearance may be with us in Louisiana or elsewhere in the South for a while, if Congress can craft a reasonable argument that discrimination continues. But even if pre-clearance goes away, the ability of the public or the Justice Department to sue in federal court against discriminatory practices is alive and well — as it should be.