The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was largely responsible for eliminating racial discrimination in the electoral process, primarily in those nine mostly Southern states where discriminatory practices were the most pervasive.
But despite vast improvements, those states — including South Carolina — have effectively remained on probation for registration and voting matters. They have been required to check in with the Justice Department any time a change was proposed in the electoral process.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued a reprieve. It ruled that the criteria under which pre-clearance is required — the so-called “coverage formula” in Section 4 of the VRA — is unconstitutional. The court held that the formula was “based on decades-old data and eradicated practices” and could no longer be employed.
The practical effect is that Justice can no longer require pre-clearance in those states and other jurisdictions (including New York City) previously targeted under Section 4.
The court majority recognized that the dramatic changes that have taken place in the mostly Southern states singled out under Section 4 warrant the revocation of a formula that relied on voting tests and low black voter turnout that existed in 1965. That’s particularly true since Congress has declined to adjust the criteria for pre-clearance — intended to be a temporary remedy — in its periodic reauthorization of the VRA.
“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”
In fact, the percentage of minorities voting in those Southern states is at least comparable to that of white voters. In several states, it is greater. More minorities hold office than ever.
Generally, the racial gap in voter registration is less and minority turnout is better in those states than elsewhere in the nation.
But even as conditions improved, Congress continued to impose the same 1965 pre-clearance requirements.
“There is no denying ... that the conditions that originally justified these measure no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” Justice Roberts wrote.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the minority, insisted that pre-clearance is needed to keep those states from “backsliding.” Apparently, Justice Ginsburg believes that the positive changes in the racial climate of the South — including the way that states conduct elections — are superficial in nature. In that view, white politicians are only waiting for Justice to relax its grip so they can to devise new methods to suppress minority voting.
It’s not going to happen. The South is a different place than it was 50 years ago, for blacks and whites.
The court ruling doesn’t do away with the Voting Rights Act, only the criteria designating those states for federal pre-clearance. Any changes in the electoral process that are viewed as discriminatory can still be challenged in court under the VRA.
In his ruling, Justice Roberts insisted that states ought to be treated equally, barring some extraordinary reason.
The discriminatory practices of the past justified the special federal oversight of registration and voting processes.
The vast improvements that have occurred over the last half century say those restrictions should be lifted. It’s only fair.