While much of the attention last week was focused on U.S. Supreme Court decisions on gay marriage, election geeks in Minnesota were pondering the “other” bombshell dropped by the court. That case, Shelby County v. Holder, carries echoes of the civil rights movement, a time when advocates of “states’ rights” battled federal intervention. In a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservative majority declared unconstitutional a pillar of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Then, as now, it was the South (Shelby County, Alabama) vs. the feds (U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.) But this time, it was the South’s success in attracting minority voters, and not old schemes for keeping black voters away, that carried the day. Minnesota and most northern and western states were not directly affected by the ruling, but the touchy issue of voting and civil rights strikes a chord everywhere.
“We have common interest in the election laws and election processes throughout the U.S.,” said Joe Mansky, head of the Ramsey County elections office. “For those of us who are not part of the jurisdiction covered by Section 5, we want to make sure we never are.”
Section 5 is the part of the act that puts states and counties with a history of voting discrimination under federal oversight. Those states — including Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina and Virginia — must submit any election-law changes to the U.S. Department of Justice or a courts panel for “pre-clearance” before putting them into effect. The Shelby decision held that the old formula for determining which states require oversight is unconstitutional. Barring a highly unlikely congressional decision to rewrite the law, the idea of special oversight appears dead.
In the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the Voting Rights Act has succeeded so well in the South that special attention is no longer needed. “Things have changed dramatically,” he said of the South — equal turnout and registration rates among white and black voters, unprecedented numbers of minority officeholders and no more “blatantly discriminatory” evasions of federal orders.