The Voting Rights Act has changed... Now what?

Seated (from left) are justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John Roberts, justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Standing (from left) are justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Tuesday’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling setting aside part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act has drawn two kinds of reactions.

Many Republicans applaud the ruling, calling it a boon for states’ rights and a recognition that in this era of a black president and a black U.S. senator from South Carolina, race is no longer the divisive political force it once was.

Many Democrats have decried the ruling, saying the Voting Rights Act was a key reason behind the progress made since 1965 and that weakening it is — in the words of dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Here are some key questions about how our state and local politics and elections could be reshaped in the months and years to come.

The Supreme Court didn’t set aside the whole Voting Rights Act. Indeed, it made it clear that trying to block people from voting based on race is still improper and unconstitutional.

At issue is how that law is enforced.

Under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional, South Carolina and several other states had to pre-clear changes to its voting through the U.S. Department of Justice.

It no longer has to.

Victoria Middleton of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina said this isn’t just a technical matter.

“It means the burden is on the person who is being discriminated against,” she said. “It’s going to be a lot more challenging to assemble the data and build the case.”

Congress could address the Supreme Court ruling by coming up with a new formula for determining which states and localities ought to be subject to preclearance rules. Few expect action here — at least not anytime soon — given the partisan gridlock between the Senate and House. But that doesn’t mean the issue won’t be debated.

“I can assure you that voting rights advocates are already gearing up,” Middleton said. “We know it won’t be easy.”

Glenn McCall, a Republican National Committee member from Rock Hill, said a bipartisan group in Congress similar to the Gang of Eight that worked on immigration reform could decide on a new bill.

But McCall, who is black, hailed the ruling and said he doesn’t think any new formula should include South Carolina as a place that needs extra scrutiny.

“As I look across the South, counties and cities especially in our state, I don’t see where you would need preclearance anymore,” he said.

Have South Carolina lawmakers been hesitant to introduce bills regarding election changes because they have feared that the Justice Department might strike them down?

Such fear didn’t stop the state from passing a 2011 law requiring voters to have a photo ID — a law that the Justice Department challenged.

The resulting lawsuit clarified that the state’s voters still can cast ballots without a photo ID as long as they sign a paper explaining why they don’t have one.

But that is far from the only election issue that has divided lawmakers here and in other states.

There also have been proposals to require proof of citizenship to register; to restrict groups who register new voters; and to change the rules for allowing voters to cast ballots before Election Day.

It’s unclear if lawmakers will be emboldened to pursue controversial legislation. S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson said he didn’t expect that to happen.

“Section 2 (of the Voting Rights Act) still bans and prohibits discrimination at the ballot box and has a vehicle to challenge bad actors. We fully support that,” he said. “There are other protections in federal law and the Constitution. The one-man, one-vote argument still applies. The equal protection arguments still apply.”

One polarizing effect on South Carolina politics has been the way congressional, state and even local districts are drawn to maximize the number of black-majority districts and the number of white, GOP-leaning districts.

As a result, few districts have competitive elections in November when voters choose between Republicans and Democrats.

Former S.C. Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said part of him was sad to see preclearance struck down — but part of him was excited about the change.

“The Republican majority in South Carolina became the Republican majority because they used the Voting Rights Act to pack African-American voters into as few districts as possible,” he said. “We’ve resegregated our state with the Republicans using the Voting Rights Act for justification.”

For instance, he noted that 6th Congressional District Rep. Jim Clyburn saw the percentage of black voters in his district rise from 51 percent to 55 percent during the past reapportionment — even though Clyburn had won 60 percent of the vote in his former district.

As a result, he noted the 1st Congressional District — and others — are more solidly Republican — a fact born out when U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford easily cruised to election in the 1st District earlier this year.

Harpootlian sued to block the state’s most recent redistricting but lost in court.

He said this ruling will spur him to revive that case — or to file a new one much like it in hopes of forcing a fresh redistricting in South Carolina before the 2020 Census.

His success could alter the state’s congressional delegation and the General Assembly’s makeup.

Larry Kobrovsky, a former Charleston County School Board member who ran as a Republican for Congress, said he hopes the districts are redrawn.

“You now have these racially polarized voting districts so people aren’t hearing the other side of the argument,” he said. “You can now have rational political lines drawn for legislators. I think that’s a big deal.”

Wilson said he did not want to predict the future regarding legal challenges to redistricting, but added, “Those challenges exist now. They’re going to exist in the future.”

The Voting Rights Act not only guided states about big election law changes and redistricting but also dived into the minutiae of drawing county precinct lines, choosing polling place sites — even setting how many machines were placed at each poll.

Years ago, these issues could trigger heated partisan maneuvers in Charleston County.

But the situation has improved in recent years, and it’s unclear whether such maneuvering will return — either in Charleston or other counties — now that the Justice Department is less involved.

Joe Debney, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration, said his office is determined to remain neutral.

“The main thing our office is focused on is the voter. We don’t care if you’re Democratic, Republican, Green, Working Families or whatever,” he said. “We want to be as transparent as possible and keep everything in the forefront to make sure Charleston County voters can have confidence in our office.”

But other counties have had trouble with their elections, particularly Richmond County last fall — where many voters waited several hours in line. Without the Justice Department’s reviewing changes in advance, those problems could trigger even livelier debate.

Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the College of Charleston’s Political Science Department, said running elections is expensive, and some counties might look at cutting the number of precincts or machines.

He said he has always been troubled that those who make the rules are either partisan or appointed by partisan officials. “I’d love to see the politics taken out of that,” he said, adding, “That’s probably unrealistic.”

Ten years ago, Republican lawmakers approved a bill changing the Charleston County School Board elections from nonpartisan to partisan — a move that came after a record number of blacks won election to the board and as Republicans were dominating other elections countywide.

The law didn’t go into effect because the Department of Justice blocked it, saying it would be harder for minority candidates to win seats under partisan elections.

There’s been no talk recently of changing back — and there might not be, particularly now that Democrats are enjoying new success in Charleston County races.

Around the same time, Charleston County Council was fighting the Justice Department in court in a lawsuit over whether the council’s at-large election method diluted black voting strength.

The county ultimately lost, and County Council currently has nine members elected from single-member districts — including three seats where blacks are in the majority.

At this point, no one is talking about changing back to an at-large system, Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said.

“To be quite honest, I don’t think you’ll hear anybody make that argument because it would be a long, uphill battle,” he said. “I think people are happy with the way things are.”

The impact of Tuesday’s ruling would be seen as less significant if both political parties had equal numbers of minorities in their ranks — and an equal stake in their power to vote.

But 90 percent of South Carolina’s black voting population still leans Democratic, as it has for generations, Gibbs Knotts, chairman of the College of Charleston’s Political Science Department, said.

Still, the South is a much different place than it was in 1965, he said, and the region has seen huge advances in terms of the number of black registered voters and elected officials.

Last fall, black overall participation in South Carolina was higher than whites — and higher than in some states not covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Glenn McCall, one of three black GOP National Committee members from the South, is also a national chair of Republicans’ Growth and Opportunity Project, which aims to increase the party’s appeal to minorities.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been outspoken about how, given the nation’s projected demographic changes, the party needs to reach out beyond white voters if it hopes to continue to win.

Nothing could hurt those efforts more than a public perception that Republican elected officials are working to curb voter registration or participation among minorities.

“We have diversity across the party when we look at elected leaders,” McCall said. “No one in our party is wanting to disenfranchise anyone.”

S.C. Attorney Alan Wilson said he looks forward to sitting down with civil rights leaders, Democrats or anyone else to talk about how to restore whatever protections they think they lost in the ruling.

“I am always going to be supportive of any measure that we can implement that discourages any type of discriminatory legislation or bad acting,” he said. “I’m willing to find a way to keep Section 5 alive so long as it’s not arbitrarily applied to the states.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.