By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court has gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The states with long histories of racism—specifically, the southern states where black humans were kept as slaves who could be legally bought, sold, raped and murdered—have had federal oversight since 1965 to protect minority voters. That's over now.
This photograph from 1965 shows President Lyndon Johnson and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in negotiations over the Voting Rights Act, which was signed into law by the president on August 6 of that same year. For the 47 years since, the Voting Rights Act has repeatedly been used in the courts to stop discriminatory voting regulations in the states and counties found to historically engage in racist behavior against minority citizens.
Those states include Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and South Carolina, as well as Alaska and Arizona. Parts of Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan were covered by the Act's "preclearance" provisions, meaning these jurisdictions could not change voting laws without federal approval.
The 5-4 decision—with Chief Justice John Roberts joined by Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.—now makes the Act's Section 4 "unconstitutional." It was Section 4 that set the rules for which states and jurisdictions would be covered by Section 5 preclearance rules.
Also on the Act's Section 5 preclearance list are counties in California and New York—including the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. But all covered jurisdictions had the ability to "bail out" of the Voting Rights Act's preclearance rules if they proved discriminatory voting rules had been eliminated.
Jurisdictions in North Carolina and Georgia have bailed out in recent years, along with 18 counties in Virginia. New Hampshire, which historically required literacy tests of new voters, successfully bailed out of Section 5 in March of this year.
In a fiercely worded dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg attacked the conservative bloc's "hubris" for ignoring both American history and the will of Congress in renewing the Voting Rights Act four times over the five decades.
“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” wrote Ginsburg. “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....With that belief, and the argument derived from it, history repeats itself.”
In the deeply divided 21st Century House and Senate, the Voting Rights Act was one of the very few laws with wide support and agreement. When renewed most recently, in 2006, the House vote was 390-33 and the Senate approved the Act 98-0. President George W. Bush signed the 2006 Voting Rights Act into law with a South Lawn ceremony featuring prominent civil rights leaders:
"The right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political future lies at the heart of the American experiment," Bush said. He said the Voting Rights Act proposed and signed by then-President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 "broke the segregationist lock on the voting box."
Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, said he was "deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today."
[Photo via Getty Images.]