Congress failed to take the U.S. Supreme Court’s word seriously in a 2009 decision raising “serious constitutional questions” about the Voting Rights Act. So the high court today struck down the central mechanism under which the law selects states for federal review of their voting procedures.
The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, upheld the 1965 law designed to ensure equal voting rights for white and minority citizens. But Roberts declared Section 4 of that law unconstitutional because it singled out certain states and counties based on 40-year-old evidence of racial discrimination.
It was a strong affirmation of federalism and in particular the concept of equal sovereignty among the states. It also highlights the huge economic and social changes that have swept the South since 1965, to the point that voter turnout as a percentage of the minority population is far higher in Mississippi, a covered state, than in Massachusetts, which is not.
“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Roberts wrote. But the formula Congress devised in 1965, separating states into those with low voter turnouts and pernicious tests like literacy requirements, is no longer valid, he said. “Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”
The decision, one of a string of late-term 5-4 verdicts, split the court on ideological grounds. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a dissent accusing the court of downplaying continuing problems with racial discrimination in the U.S. According to the conservative majority, she wrote, “the very success …of the Voting Rights Act demands its dormancy.”