The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling Tuesday that a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. The ruling applied to Section 4 of the law, which requires some states, including South Carolina, and other jurisdictions to get pre-clearance from the federal government for any changes to voting laws.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 ruling. Congress reauthorized the law in 2006, and Roberts wrote that the formula for determining which states need federal approval should have been updated.
"Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day," he wrote.
South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson says he supports the Voting Rights Act and thinks it's been a big success in protecting voting rights, but says the High Court was correct in its ruling. "What this ruling does is it takes out the parts of the Voting Rights Act that are outdated and antiquated, but leaves the rest of the act intact. All the protections are still in place," he says.
University of South Carolina law professor Derek Black says, "It's a big deal for South Carolina." Just last year, the state had to get federal approval of its new Voter ID law, and every ten years, when lawmakers redraw voting district lines, those also have to get federal preclearance before they can be put into place.
"All that stuff had to be sent to Washington, D.C. So there was a deterrent effect, which is to say if you were going to do something that you thought might be a problem, why not just stay away from it? Now there really isn't any deterrent, and there's no time delay," he says.
But Wilson says not having to get that federal approval for every single voting law change will save South Carolina taxpayers millions of dollars. "Right now, if we wanted to pass a law that changed the times of operation of your local election office from 8:30 to 8:00 a.m., you would have to go to the federal government to ask permission. That cost money."
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said after the ruling, "Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was a necessary tool to preserve voting rights, but due to the reform and advances in South Carolina election law, it is no longer necessary. The Supreme Court noted this tremendous progress in South Carolina's electoral system and it was the underpinning of their decision. I concur with the Court that our state has made tremendous progress.
"The Supreme Court decision now puts South Carolina on equal footing with every other state in the nation. As a South Carolinian, I'm glad we will no longer be singled out and treated differently than our sister states."
But South Carolina 6th District Congressman James Clyburn, who's the Assistant Democratic Leader in the House, said, "The Voting Rights Act has been the single most important tool to protect the right to vote over the last half century. All the way up to the present day, the preclearance requirement has prevented egregious infringements on the franchise, and today's decision frighteningly opens the door for underhanded schemes to reduce the electoral power of minority communities."
Chief Justice Robert's opinion says that Congress may pass another law to restore that section of the Voting Rights Act, if it uses up-to-date data. Clyburn said, "This work begins today."
Dr. Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina Conference of Branches of the NAACP, said of the ruling, "We know that problems still exist based on race, based on gender, based on social status. The one place where race has played the biggest role, and had the biggest impact and did the most damage has been in voting."
He worries that the ruling, and the reaction to it, will make Congress even "more venomous than it is now. We will see greater divisiveness."
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