The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a key provision in a landmark Civil Rights-era law designed to combat discriminatory voting practice, a move that frees states of certain federal oversight of elections.
While the justices in their 5-4 decision left in place most of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, they threw out rules that required all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South, to seek approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before they make changes in the way they hold elections.
The court left it up to Congress to draft new voting guidelines to ensure that states and cities with a history of voting discrimination properly following the Voting Rights Act. But with a deeply divided Congress, a consensus on a new law will be difficult.
President Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” with the Supreme Court’s ruling, calling it a major setback in the push to end voting discrimination across the country.
“Today’s decision … upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent,” he said.
He called on Congress to pass legislation “to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”
The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote for the court.
The Voting Rights Act — enacted to stop Jim Crow-era practices such as literacy tests, poll taxes or other measures designed to keep blacks from voting — has been reauthorized by Congress several times, most recently in 2006 by overwhelming majorities in both chambers.
The high court didn’t invalidate the constitutionality of the advance approval, known as the “preclearance” requirement. But it rejected the formula drafted by Congress to determine which states and jurisdictions deserve extra scrutiny, saying it failed to take into account changing circumstances in the South.
Shelby County, Ala., challenged the constitutionality of the preclearance requirement, saying it no longer should be forced to live under oversight from Washington because it has made significant progress in combating voter discrimination.
Supporters of preclearance say it has been among the nation’s most effective tools to eradicate racial discrimination in voting. And without it, they say states might seek to reinstate or push a new wave of discriminatory voting measures previously blocked or deterred by the law.