A sharply divided Supreme Court has struck down a key part of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, freeing the Southern states from federal oversight of their election laws and setting off a fierce reaction from civil rights advocates and Democratic leaders. The court’s conservative majority moved boldly Tuesday to rein in a law revered by civil rights groups that is credited with transforming the South by ensuring blacks could register and vote. In doing so, the court eliminated a tool that the Justice Department used hundreds of times to prevent cities, counties and states from adopting allegedly discriminatory voting rules. The court left open the possibility that Congress could fix the law, but the partisan gridlock that has dominated the legislative branch in recent years appears to make that unlikely.
Under the provision that the court struck down, nine states and the city councils and local governments within them were required to obtain advance approval from Washington before changing their rules on voting and elections, a process known as “pre-clearance.” The goal was to end the discriminatory schemes that for a century after the Civil War had prevented blacks from registering and voting. More recently, the law has been used to ensure that black and Latino votes translate into electoral power.
Since it was first adopted in 1965, the law has been repeatedly extended by Congress, most recently by a nearly unanimous vote in a Republican-controlled House and Senate in 2006.
Speaking for a 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. pronounced the pre-clearance process a “resounding success” — and then declared it unconstitutional.