Two years ago, the Supreme Court decided a case that may, it now appears, save Barack Obama’s chances at reëlection—and, more importantly, preserve a precious corner of American democracy.
For many years now, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been under assault. The law requires that any changes in voting rules in certain states, mostly in the South, be “pre-cleared” by the Justice Department, to make sure that they do not impinge on the voting rights of minorities. Many people in these states and elsewhere have argued that the law is now obsolete and that its pre-clearance provisions stigmatize and demean places that have long ago reformed from their racist pasts. In the 2009 case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, the Court had a chance to invalidate the law—and ducked. Instead, by a vote of 8-1, the Justices disposed of the case on procedural grounds and left the larger fight for another day. (Clarence Thomas dissented, arguing that the Voting Rights Act is indeed obsolete and unconstitutional.) The Voting Rights Act, and its pre-clearance provisions, remained intact.
The importance of the Northwest Austin case was apparent last week when the Justice Department rejected South Carolina’s new law to impose a photo-identification requirement for voters in 2012. “According to the state’s statistics, there are 81,938 minority citizens who are already registered to vote and who lack D.M.V.-issued identification,” Thomas E. Perez, the chief of the department’s civil-rights division, said in a letter to South Carolina officials. The only reason the Justice Department had the chance to rule on the South Carolina changes is because of the pre-clearance rules. (South Carolina may challenge the Justice Department decision in court, thus possibly setting up another test of the Voting Rights Act in the Supreme Court.)