Supreme Court Castrates Voting Rights Act

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Lyndon Johnson shown with Dr. King after signing Voting Rights Act

Nothing now stands in the way of Voter ID Laws, except new resistance

The U.S. Supreme Court didn't kill the Voting Rights Act but effectively castrated it.

The court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act this morning; it's the provision of the civil rights law that designates the geographic regions where the federal government has to pre-clear any changes in voting laws to avoid discrimination in voting.

Chief justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 decision, joining Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy.  The case is formally known as Shelby County v. Holder.

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in 1965 by President Lyndon Johnson and while Section 5 itself was not ruled on, by declaring Section 4 unconstitutional, supporters of the law say the court has effectively "gutted" it. Many of the areas that had been subjected to federal review are in the South, traditionally the parts of the country where Black voters had been barred from or intimidated from voting and in many cased outright attacked and brutalized.

Roberts said the statistics used to designate the Southern states are today "obsolete" and "violates the constitution."

When Texas and South Carolina wanted to introduce Voter ID laws before last year's presidential elections, which many critics contend were meant to prevent or  discourage Blacks from voting, the Voting Rights Act helped deter those changes. Nothing now stands in the way of those states and others unless Congress introduces a new formula; possibly an unlikely scenario with the current Congress.

Justice Roberts believes the country is now at a different place in history and wrote: “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions." He acknowledged that there was "no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act" and also noted that the Act "proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process."

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act itself still does require preclearance for affected states where rule changes would discriminate: but the law is effectively sterile for now without a formula for determining which states fall in this category.

Writing for herself and fellow dissenters Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: "The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective" and that the majority of 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."

The reactions from supporters of the law have come in swiftly to The Black Star News, denouncing the ruling:

President Barack Obama:

"I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

As a nation, we’ve made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists. And while today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination. I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process."

Roslyn M. Brock, Chairman, NAACP National Board of Directors:

“This decision has the potential to set voting rights back more than fifty years,” stated NAACP Chairman Roslyn M. Brock. “It is especially unsettling in a year when we commemorate Medgar Evers, a man who gave his life to expand and protect the right to vote. But in the spirit of Medgar, who said 'You can kill a man but you can't kill an idea,' we will stand our ground and bring this debate to Congress.”

Benjamin Todd Jealous, President and CEO, NAACP:

“This decision is outrageous. The Court’s majority put politics over decades of precedent and the rights of voters,” stated NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “Congress must resurrect its bipartisan efforts from 2006 to ensure that the federal government has the power to preemptively strike racially discriminatory voting laws. Without that power, we are more vulnerable to the flood of attacks we have seen in recent years.”

Jealous continued, “While Section 2 is powerful after the fact, we must have a tool to protect against stolen elections proactively.”

Jotaka Eaddy, Sr. Director for Voting Rights, NAACP:

"Today's decision puts Congress in the center of the battle for voting rights in our nation,” said Jotaka Eaddy, NAACP Senior Director for Voting Rights.  “While the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate section 4 is a setback, it is not the end of the fight. It is time for all Americans to take this fight to Congress and ensure that every vote is protected.  Our democracy demands it."

On February 27th, 2013, the NAACP and thousands of activists from across the country rallied outside of the Supreme Court to urge the Supreme Court to protect voting rights for all citizens and uphold Section 5.

Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which defended the Voting Rights Act before the U.S. Supreme Court:

"The Supreme Court’s decision today to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act is an act of extraordinary judicial overreach. The Supreme Court ruling takes the most powerful tool our nation has to defend minority voting rights out of commission. By second-guessing Congress’ judgment about which places should be covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the Court has left millions of minority voters without the mechanism that has allowed them to stop voting discrimination before it occurs. This is like letting you keep your car, but taking away the keys. To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. Congress must step in.

In 2006, Congress amassed a 15,000 page record supporting its judgment that minority voters in certain places needed specific protections to be able to participate equally in the political process. The Supreme Court today held that Congress must now return to the drawing board to reconsider which jurisdictions in the country should be covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court declined the request by Shelby County, Alabama to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires some states and localities to illustrate that proposed changes to the voting process don’t suppress minority voters before those changes can take effect. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of Section 5 itself, which has been upheld in four previous challenges. 

Today’s ruling conflicts with our deeply held value in America that every individual has the sacred right to vote. Our country is stronger when more—not fewer—people participate in the political process.

Today will be remembered as a step backwards in the march towards equal rights. We must ensure that this day is just a page in our nation’s history, rather than the return to a dark chapter.

In the last few years we have witnessed an assault on our voting rights in the places covered by the Voting Rights Act that has been historic, both in terms of its scope and intensity. In the 2012 elections, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act blocked efforts to suppress millions of voters of color in Florida, Texas, and South Carolina.  In the past 25 years, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act has stopped over 1,000 proposed discriminatory voting changes from taking effect.

The Voting Rights Act recently rejected numerous discriminatory voting measures, including preventing Alaska in 2008 from eliminating precincts in several Native American villages, which would have required voters to travel by air or sea in order to cast a ballot; a city council election from being cancelled in Kilmichael, Mississippi in 2001 after candidates of color were poised to win for the first time in the City’s history; and, in Shelby County, Alabama in 2008, where this lawsuit originates, Section 5 reinstated the City of Calera’s only African-American councilman after he lost his seat when his district was reduced from 70.9% registered Black voters to just 29.5%.

We must now confront the poison of voter suppression in the places where it is most intense without our most effective antidote.  Congress must step in to aggressively and expeditiously prevent an onslaught of attacks on the right to vote. The ink will barely be dry on this decision before people will start hatching plans to get between Americans and the ballot box.

Fortunately, members of Congress have already committed to protect voting rights against racial discrimination.  Our elected officials have a responsibility to do everything in their power to protect the fundamental right to vote.  The Voting Rights Act has always had bipartisan support, including in 2006 (by 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House), the last time it was reauthorized.    

When it comes to matters as fundamental as the right to vote, we can’t wait for problems to occur before we fix them.  Congress has the power to make good on the promise that every American should have the right to vote, and it must exercise that power forthwith."

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand:

“The Voting Rights Act has been a cornerstone of ensuring the rights won in the Civil Rights movement continue to stand strong today. The Supreme Court’s ruling is a significant setback that will put Congress to the test of whether we can move quickly and without partisanship. I urge my colleagues to meet that test. 

“We must be clear -- The Voting Rights Act is not ancient history. Just last year alone, Section 5 helped prevent discrimination across the country – on issues ranging from state ID’s to redistricting and reducing early voting. Voting is a sacred right and ensuring that every vote counts is a cornerstone of our democracy that must be embraced by both sides of the aisle.

“The last time Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, it was passed for the fourth time with sweeping bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress. We must come together once again to ensure that every American has the fundamental right to vote regardless of which community they live in.”

Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU):

“Today’s Supreme Court decision imperils the most sacred right in our democracy – the right to vote.

“The facts are that conditions have not changed in many parts of our country where voters have suffered from a long history of racial discrimination in voting and new forms of voter suppression continue to threaten our democracy. In many states and localities across the country, we saw efforts to disenfranchise African American and Latino voters during the 2012 election. Whether in the form of onerous voter ID laws or citizenship check boxes meant to confuse voters, state and local governments are already changing their election laws and procedures in ways that will disenfranchise millions of eligible voters, including the elderly, the disabled and young people.

“With this decision, state and local governments in areas with a proven history of racial discrimination in voting will have no effective check on their power to change election laws as they please, potentially opening the floodgates to even more discriminatory practices that will prevent eligible citizens from voting. Congress should move swiftly to remedy the harm that the Court has done to one of our most important civil rights laws.

“While this is a truly disappointing decision, it should serve as further motivation for us to fight against voter suppression in all its forms, wherever we find it.”

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman:

"The U.S. Supreme Court today struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the coverage provision, while preserving Section 5, the preclearance provision. The Supreme Court’s decision puts the responsibility on Congress to rewrite the coverage provision. In a friend-of-the-court brief, Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman led a four-state coalition to argue that the Court should uphold the entire law given the important role that the Voting Rights Act plays in blocking and deterring voting discrimination. The brief was filed jointly with California, Mississippi and North Carolina in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder.

“The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 4 is deeply disappointing, and Congress must act immediately to develop a new coverage provision that will ensure equal access to the political process for every American,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “While the Supreme Court has preserved the preclearance process of Section 5, it is now the responsibility of Congress to ensure that the Voting Rights Act continues to play its vital role in strengthening our democracy and combating and deterring voting discrimination.”

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg aptly observed in dissent: 'Beyond question, the VRA is no ordinary legislation. It is extraordinary because Congress embarked on a mission long delayed and of extraordinary importance: to realize the purpose and promise of the Fifteenth Amendment. For a half century, a concerted effort has been made to end racial discrimination in voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, progress once the subject of a dream has been achieved and continues to be made.'

New York Democratic Mayoral candidate Sal Albanese:

"The Voting Rights Act is one of the few pieces of legislation that had the real teeth needed to protect disenfranchised voters. The court's decision effectively destroys those protections.

I'm calling on the New York Congressional delegation - regardless of party - to unite behind new legislation that guarantees equal access to the polls for every American, especially those who have a history of being intimidated and turned away. As a state that participates in some of the worst forms of disenfranchisement, including archaic voter registration laws and rampant gerrymandering, New York has a special obligation to lead the nation in this effort.Strong voter protections are especially important here in New York City, where the patronage dump we call the BOE has proven utterly incapable of properly managing polling places."

Reshma Saujani, a voting rights advocate and Democratic Candidate for NYC Public Advocate:

“Today's decision from the US Supreme Court is simply wrong.  Their unjust choice to undermine our democracy only reaffirms that we are witnessing an all-out attack on the American Dream and the opportunities it provides. Whatever progress we have made since the original passage of the Voting Rights Act 50 years ago, it’s clear that voter intimidation and suppression are alive and well, from the deep South to right here in New York.

“Last year's elections brought multiple attempts by Republicans to disenfranchise voters through changing voting procedures, polling places, and a whole host of bigoted activity now left unchecked by this Supreme Court. In this environment, any past progress cannot be viewed as a legitimate justification for gutting the protections that allowed us to achieve that progress in the first place.  As a voting rights advocate, I am offended; as a woman of color I am outraged; and as a Democrat I call on our leaders in Congress to immediately begin the process of righting this wrong-headed and embarrassingly political decision.” 

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