Supreme Court Dismantles Key Provision of Voting Rights Act

This week, Congress is holding its first hearings on reconfiguring Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. And while Democrats are committed to finding solutions that will prevent discrimination at the polls and expand access to voting, Republicans are already playing games even before the hearings begin. In fact, the hearing will be led by Representative Trent Franks — one of just 33 Republicans who voted against the law's reauthorization in 2006.

Since there's been some confusion as to what the ruling means, we wanted to share a brief explanation of the decision and why it's so important for Congress to fully reinstate an act that has long been a cornerstone achievement of the civil rights movement.

The Supreme Court didn't strike down the entire Voting Rights Act. What they did was dismantle the key provision.

More to the point, in Shelby County v. Holder, a conservative court struck down Section 4 of the Act. This section encompassed the formula that Congress used to determine which jurisdictions would be subject to preclearance by the federal government with regard to changes in voting laws. It was initially created to stop states and localities with a history of discrimination from circumventing the law with discriminatory elections practices.

Based on the formula, prior to the Shelby County, nine states were entirely covered under the VRA, with six states covered to a lesser extent.Those states that met the Section 4 formula, were subject to review under Section 5 and were this required to "pre-clear" with the Department of Justice any changes to their voting laws. In the absence of Section 4’s formula, Section 5 does not function.

The effects are real. Approximately 65 million individuals currently live in jurisdictions covered by Section 5. Without the law, these voters could now be subject to obstructionist policies that keep them away from the polls.

While previously upholding the VRA as constitutional, the Court referenced the “blight of racial discrimination in voting.” A few weeks ago, five justices took it upon themselves to declare that protections against such discrimination are no longer necessary, despite conceding in its majority opinion that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.” Perhaps the Court’s slim majority in Shelby County was referring to recent Republican efforts in the states to pass restrictive new voter ID laws, shorten hours for early-voting, and eliminate same-day voter registration.

The federal government’s duty to protect the voting rights of minorities has encountered a major roadblock. Myriad jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination may now revert their voting laws to a pre-VRA era.

The misguided decision in Shelby County will place a burden on those who seek equality.  But as Democrats, we remain committed to ensuring that the right to vote is one enjoyed by every American and we’ll explore every option to end any and all voter discrimination. Add your name below and urge Congress to take action.

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