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The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled as unconstitutional a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires nine states, mostly in the South, to obtain federal permission before changing voting procedures.
We asked Alex Keyssar, Matthew W. Stirling Jr. Professor of History and Social Policy, to provide his perspectives on the impact of the decision.
Q: Why was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 necessary?
Keyssar: The VRA was passed as a means of enforcing the 15th Amendment to the constitution, which had become law a century earlier. The straightforward goal was to use federal power to ensure that African Americans in the South could register to vote, and vote.
Q: What motivated its critics to bring a legal case against it now?
Keyssar: Motives are always tricky to determine. Many critics and skeptics had argued, for quite some time, that the coverage formula in Section 4 was out of date; this issue was discussed at the time of the reauthorization of the VRA in 2006. That said, it is difficult not to see this case as having fundamentally political, and partisan, origins: what the case does is to remove an important barrier protecting minority voters against discriminatory policies, at a time when minority voters have loomed as an increasingly decisive constituency for the Democratic party. It does not seem to be a coincidence that the lawyers who developed the case, and all of the justices in the Supreme Court’s majority are Republicans.
Q: How does the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Section 4, the enforcement portion of the Act, impact Section 5?
Keyssar: Striking down Section IV, which details the coverage formula, renders Section V (the preclearance provision) inoperative. Preclearance applies only to “covered” jurisdictions, and right now, there are no covered jurisdictions. Congress would have to develop a new coverage formula for Section 5 to again become functional, and that’s extremely unlikely to happen. Without the preclearance provision, voters who believe that they have been harmed by a discriminatory law can file suit (under Section 2), but only after the fact (and basically after the election) – and it’s a very costly, time-consuming process.
Q: In what way could the ruling effect challengers, incumbents and most importantly, voters in Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia along with parts of Arizona, Hawaii and Idaho?
Keyssar: This will mean that many different types of electoral laws that are potentially discriminatory can go into effect soon or immediately. For example, Texas has announced that its new voter ID law – which had been awaiting preclearance and which many people consider to be quite draconian – will become law immediately. Other strict ID laws in previously covered states will surely follow. The drawing of district boundaries – for congress, state legislators, and many local offices – will no longer be subject to federal approval, regarding any potentially discriminatory consequences; and this could potentially affect numerous elections.