Supreme Court puts voting rights onus on Congress

  • Updated: June 30, 2013 - 5:24 PM

 

The Voting Rights Act was renewed in 2006 with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress and the signature of President George W. Bush. But constitutional experts warned at the time that the effort was on shaky legal ground because Congress made no effort to use current information to justify the continued restrictions on the nine states.

That’s exactly what the court majority argued in the Tuesday decision.

The court said Congress could come up with a new formula to single out states “on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. It cannot rely simply on the past.” No justification based on current facts was established to subject the nine states to a higher standard than the rest of the country.

Penalizing those states for practices that occurred more than half a century ago was “irrational,” the court majority said. It placed those states under pre-emptive scrutiny they could not escape no matter how much they changed.

Are voters in those states in immediate peril of being disenfranchised? In recent years, the Justice Department has rarely rejected a change in law or regulation submitted under the preclearance rule.

With this Supreme Court ruling, the Justice Department and the courts may still respond to attempts to disenfranchise minority voters wherever and whenever they occur. And they have been doing so.

In Ohio — not one of the nine states — the Republican-controlled legislature moved last year to restrict early voting hours. That move was overturned by a federal judge after the Obama campaign and Democratic Party officials brought a legal challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court allowed the lower court ruling to stand.

In Pennsylvania — not one of the nine — a state judge blocked the use of a strict photo ID requirement in the 2012 election, ruling that state officials had not done enough to assure reasonable access to state-issued cards.

In the case decided Tuesday by the Supreme Court, lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., which brought the lawsuit, noted that since 1982 Illinois has faced more voting rights lawsuits than most of the covered states. The same for New York state.

The federal oversight of the nine states was never intended to be eternal. It was supposed to right a wrong, to help secure voting rights for minorities. If Congress detects that there is a pattern of disenfranchisement, it holds the option of creating a new set of rules for particular states.

The high court did not argue that voter disenfranchisement has been eradicated across the land. It did find that the Voting Rights Act must reflect the United States of 2013.

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