If Wednesday’s argument before the Supreme Court is any indication, a majority of the justices seemed inclined to strike down or curtail key sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Even if the court does move in that direction, election officials in some states will have more leeway to change some procedures, but voters in 2014 won’t suddenly wake up in 1964. Hearing a challenge brought by Shelby County, Ala., several justices voiced skepticism about the formula the law uses to decide which states and other jurisdictions are required to get permission, or “preclearance,” from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington for any change in voting procedures that they seek to make. In 2006 Congress reauthorized Section 5 of the law for another 25 years. The current formula uses election data from 1972 and earlier to determine which places section 5 applies to. Critics of the law say the formula is archaic and ought to be scrapped.
Currently nine states, mostly in the South, as well as 54 counties in New York, California, Florida, North Carolina and South Dakota and 12 townships in Michigan and New Hampshire, are covered by section 5.
What effect would a ruling which struck down or curbed section 5 have on elections in the United States?
Would parts of the country now covered by section 5 revert to the days of poll taxes, literacy tests, murders of voter registration workers, racial gerrymandering of districts, and other devices to negate the power of African-American, Latino and other minority voters?
The short answer is no, and that’s because a separate section of the Voting Rights Act, section 2 – which is a permanent part of the statute and need not be periodically renewed, as section 5 must be – bans voting procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups identified by the law, which includes not only Spanish, but Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and several Native American and Alaska Native language groups.