Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Provision of the Voting Rights Act

By
Outside the Supreme Court, NAACP members who will not appreciate this ruling. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In a 5–4 decision along predictable lines, the Supreme Court held today that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Since 1965, the Voting Rights Act has required certain states and localities — mostly, but not entirely located in the South — to preclear any changes in voting laws or procedures with the Justice Department to ensure they weren't discriminatory against racial minorities.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts did not rule against the idea of preclearance itself. Instead, he declared that the formula for deciding which states needed to seek preclearance was so out of date as to be unconstitutional. "Our country has changed," Roberts writes, "and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."

In other words, Congress is free to come up with a new formula. Of course, it does not seem like Congress — which can hardly agree on anything outside of renaming post offices, much less something as inherently thorny as deciding which states are most hostile toward the voting rights of racial minorities — will do that any time soon. 

Congress did address the Voting Rights Act not too long ago, however. In 2006 — after holding nearly a year of hearings, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in her dissent — it reauthorized the momentous legislation for another 25 years. The vote was 390 to 33 in the House and 98 to 0 in the Senate.