The Supreme Court struck down the crown jewel of the Civil Rights movement today. Section 5 was the most powerful tool in the movement’s arsenal. Although I’m a law professor and thus supposed to be opining on the court’s decision and Congress’ potential response, I want to spend a little time mourning Section 5’s passing before hashing out the consequences. To understand why Section 5 was special, you have to know a bit about its history. The brutal attacks on civil rights marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge provided the push needed to pass the Voting Rights Act. When the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, almost no African-Americans were registered to vote in the Deep South due to brutal repression and sickening legal chicanery. Civil rights litigators and the Department of Justice were doing their best to help. They filed lawsuit after lawsuit to make it possible for blacks to register. But every time a court deemed one discriminatory practice illegal, local officials would switch to another. Literacy tests, poll taxes, burdensome registration requirements—these techniques were all used to prevent African-Americans from voting. Southern voting registrars would even resign from their positions as soon as a lawsuit was on the cusp of succeeding, thereby sending the case back to square one. The Voting Rights Act aimed to change all of this.
Section 5 was the most important and imaginative provision in the law. It required certain states and jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to ask the federal government’s permission before making any change—no matter how small—in the way they run elections. Until a rule was “precleared,” it could not go into effect. This unusual provision solved the central problem of voting-rights enforcement during the civil rights era—keeping up with the increasingly creative strategies recalcitrant state and local governments used to disenfranchise voters. Section 5 shifted the burden of inertia, allowing the Department of Justice to get one step ahead of local officials.
It worked. It worked miraculously well, in fact. In a remarkably short period, African-American registration rates shot up. Section 5 mattered especially for the Deep South, where there were large concentrations of black voters. By the 1990s, these states were able to send a historic number of black representatives to Congress. But Section 5 didn’t just matter for the big-ticket races. For decades it provided strong protections for minority voters in local and state elections as well as federal ones. Based on those successes, Congress renewed Section 4’s “coverage formula”—the provision that determines which jurisdictions have to preclear changes and which don’t—again and again.
The last renewal in 2006 finally proved to be too much for the five conservative justices. Today’s opinion rebukes Congress for relying on 40-year-old data. Put more simply, the court took Congress to task for its failure to recognize that the South is no longer the South. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the five-justice majority, insisted that the principles of federalism forbid Congress to require some states, and not others, to get pre-approval for potentially discriminatory election changes.