Supreme Court Strikes Down Key Part of Voting Rights Act

States With a History of Voting Discrimination Are No Longer Required to Have Their Voting Plans Precleared by the Justice Department

The U.S. Supreme Court’s long-awaited ruling on the voting rights case Shelby County v. Holder came down on June 25th. A divided court invalidated the coverage formula of Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 ruling that Congress had not taken into account the nation’s racial progress when singling out states for federal oversight. Importantly, though, the 5-4 decision did not strike down Section 5 itself, leaving it to Congress to devise a new coverage formula.


Section 5 of the Act required jurisdictions with significant histories of voter discrimination to “pre-clear,” that is, get federal approval from the Department of Justice (DOJ), for any new voting practices or procedures, and to show that they do not have a discriminatory effect. Jurisdictions were monitored if they had maintained a “test or device” restricting the opportunity to vote and if less than 50% of persons of voting age were registered to vote or less than 50% of persons of voting age voted in the presidential election of November 1964.


The Supreme Court’s ruling in June allowed states to change or enact election laws for the first time in 48 years without obtaining DOJ approval. Some Southern states lost little time in reacting to the Court’s decision. Time magazine (July 22, 2013) summarized the changes:

  • Texas, 2 hours after the decision: state’s attorney general announced that a law requiring one of seven types of photo ID – blocked by DOJ in 2012 – would immediately go into effect.
  • Mississippi, 1 day after the decision: state’s secretary of state and attorney general vowed to advance a 2011 photo-ID law that DOJ had not approved.
  • Alabama, 3 days after the decision: state plans to distribute free ID cards to those who lack one of its eight accepted forms of now required photo ID.
  • Virginia, 3 days after the decision: law passed in March requiring voters to present a photo ID can now take effect in July 2014 without federal approval.
  • North Carolina, 7 days after the decision: state senate announced plans to mandate photo IDs at the polls and end early and Sunday voting.


Although this country has made significant gains in voting rights, discrimination at the polls persists today and cannot be dismissed as a relic of the past. DOJ has blocked many photo ID laws on the grounds that they would disproportionately affect the elderly, and black and Hispanic voters. Early voting has been especially popular among Democrats and black voters. In 2011, Florida’s Republican-led legislature shortened the number of early voting days from 14 to 8 and eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the election. It was common for black and Latino churches to organize voting drives on these Sundays. Some of the most memorable images of the Tuesday November 2012 election are of the long lines of Florida citizens still trying to vote early the following morning. Florida’s Governor Rick Scott has since endorsed efforts to fix the state’s flawed election process. However, as demonstrated in reactions to the Court’s striking down Section 5, other states seem intent on exclusion rather than inclusion. In my next blog, I’ll review how Congress and DOJ have responded to the Supreme Court’s decision.



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