A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Tuesday struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that required South Carolina and eight other states, mostly in the South, to get federal approval for all changes to their voting laws.
Several South Carolina officials hailed the ruling, but some civil rights activists said they fear the removal of that protection will end up stomping on the rights of minority voters.
In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court struck down the provision requiring preclearance of any changes in voting laws because it relies on a 40-year-old formula that no longer reflects current racial progress and changes in U.S. society.
That formula is outlined in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, originally passed in 1965 and most recently updated by Congress in 1975.
The court did not strike down Section 5, which requires the nine states to seek prior approval before enacting changes. But without the formula to provide its legal foundation, Section 5 has no weight.
The court left it to Congress to come up with a new formula and means to apply oversight, but political observers said that the country shouldn't hold its breath given the partisan gridlock that exists on Capitol Hill.
State officials applauded the ruling, saying it was long overdue and recognizes the substantial progress made by South Carolina in bringing equality to its polls.
S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said the Supreme Court ruling is a victory over “an extraordinary intrusion into state sovereignty in certain states, including South Carolina.” He said great strides had been made over time, making the preclearance requirement obsolete.
Others saw the decision in a more critical light.
“Make no mistake, Section 5 is dead,” Charleston attorney Armand Derfner said. “The Supreme Court has killed the most effective civil rights law ever passed.”
Derfner anxiously sat inside the Supreme Court in Washington on Tuesday morning waiting to hear the highly anticipated decision from the justices themselves. He had a personal stake in the outcome as he had represented a group of disenfranchised Mississippi voters right after the Act passed in 1965 and has been fighting for voting rights for the last four and a half decades.
When it came time for the announcement of the ruling, Derfner said everyone sat up straight in their seats. “It's quiet, but it's emotional,” he said.
As U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts read the opinion, many let out a heavy breath. Derfner called it a difficult moment to bear.
“It's a shameful decision and it will be a permanent stain on the Supreme Court,” Derfner said.
Gov. Nikki Haley, who is of Indian ancestry, had a much different take. Her spokesman, Rob Godfrey, released a statement saying the governor, as the state's first minority and woman chief executive, hailed the decision as a success for the state.
“She understands better than anyone how South Carolina has changed for the better — and that's thanks in no small part to the fact that she, and members of the General Assembly, have fought to strengthen the integrity of our electoral process and make sure more, and not fewer, South Carolinians have access to the ballot box,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., took to Twitter to praise the ruling, saying as “a South Carolinian, I'm glad we will no longer be singled out and treated differently than our sister states.”
U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., called the decision “very disappointing” and “problematic,” ignoring an involved and bipartisan effort by Congress in 2006 to renew the Voting Rights Act.
“I don't know what the Congress is going to do,” he said. “I know we want to move swiftly to correct this decision.”
How quickly that will happen is unclear, as is how much support exists for revisiting the issue.
Calls to the press offices of U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, and Sen. Tim Scott, South Carolina Republicans, were not returned on Tuesday. But the NAACP has already started an online petition for Congress to “protect voting rights.”
Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott said the issue is by no means over. “You can rest assured that we're not going to quietly sit back and let the games for voter suppression happen,” she said. “The fight will continue. This will definitely move to the top of the agenda for the NAACP.”
Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the political science department at College of Charleston, said the court's ruling means the region will face fewer hurdles in holding elections and changing the way those elections are conducted.
Knotts said the move reflects the changes that have occurred in the affected states and the progress that's been made. “There is a much different environment than there was when those states and counties were named,” he said.
The Voting Rights Act still provides teeth to police discriminatory voting practices, but citizens and communities must remain vigilant and vocal about potential abuses “because equal and fair access to the ballot is fundamental to our democratic system,” Knotts said.
In the dissenting opinion to the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the ruling removes an effective protection against voter discrimination.
“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” she stated.
The dissenting opinion also holds out an election for the Charleston County School Board as a cautionary tale and an example of a voting change blocked by the U.S. Justice Department. Ginsburg's dissenting opinion stated:
“In 2003, after African-Americans won a majority of the seats on the school board for the first time in history, Charleston County, South Carolina, proposed an at-large voting mechanism for the board. The proposal, made without consulting any of the African-American members of the school board, was found to be an 'exact replica' of an earlier voting scheme that, a federal court had determined, violated the Voting Rights Act.”
Glenn Smith and Jade McDuffie contributed to this report.
Reach Natalie Caula at 937-5594 or Twitter.com/ncaula.