On this dayJun 25, 2013

Supreme Court Invalidates Key Provision of Voting Rights Act at Southern States’ Request

On June 25, 2013, in a 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and effectively gutted one of the nation’s most important and successful civil rights laws.

Despite adoption in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment barring racial discrimination in voting, Southern states and others used poll taxes, literacy tests, and violence to deny Black Americans the right to vote for another century. Unchecked and systematic voter suppression targeted African American communities in the South for generations.

After decades of organized civil rights activism, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) finally became law on August 6, 1965. It outlawed discriminatory barriers to voting like poll taxes and literacy tests and also imposed strict oversight upon states and districts with histories of voter discrimination. The new law quickly proved extremely effective; Black registration rates soon rose throughout the South, and Black officials were elected at the highest rates since Reconstruction. In this way, the Act directly confronted and addressed a century of racist voting policies. Section 4 of the Act required jurisdictions with the worst records of discrimination to obtain “preclearance” from the federal government before changing voting laws.

However, in Shelby County v. Holder, Alabama officials argued that preclearance was no longer constitutional or necessary, and the Supreme Court agreed. Chief Justice Roberts reasoned for the majority that “things have changed dramatically” since 1965—voting tests are illegal, racial disparities in voter turnout and registration have diminished, and people of color hold elected office “in record numbers.”

Yet voting discrimination—and the need for the Voting Rights Act—continues in the present day, the dissenters pointed out. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in dissent that covered jurisdictions continue to propose voting law changes that are rejected under the VRA, “auguring that barriers to minority voting would quickly resurface were the preclearance remedy eliminated.”

The decision drastically reduced the VRA’s power to combat “second-generation barriers” to voting, like racial gerrymandering, which minimize the impact of minority votes. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” wrote Justice Ginsburg. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA's success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed. With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.”

The decision unleashed a surge in voter suppression measures—including strict voter ID laws, cutting voting times, restricting registration, and purging voter rolls—that are undermining voter participation by people of color today.

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