The Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — the map that determines which states must get federal permission before they change their voting laws. Civil rights activists called the decision devastating, and a dissenting justice said it amounted to the “demolition” of the law, widely considered the most important piece of civil rights legislation in American history. The ruling, a 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, leaves the future of the law deeply uncertain because it will be up to a sharply divided Congress to redraw the map, if it can agree on one at all. “In practice, in reality, it’s probably the death knell of this provision,” said Tom Goldstein, the publisher of SCOTUSblog and a Supreme Court analyst for NBC News. … Roberts cited census data showing that black voter turnout now exceeds white turnout in five of the six states originally covered by the law. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote for the court.
The act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. Congress has renewed it four times, and the 2006 renewal won a huge majority in the House and passed the Senate 98-0. That renewal extended the law through 2031.
As part of the ruling Tuesday, the court published a chart comparing white and black voter registration in 1965 and in 2004 in the six states originally covered. In Alabama, for example, the white registration rate was 69 percent and the black rate 19 percent in 1965. By 2004, that gap had all but disappeared — 74 percent for whites and 73 percent for blacks.
“There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act,” Roberts wrote. “The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”
He cited two towns deeply scarred by the civil rights movement: Philadelphia, Miss., where three men trying to register black voters were murdered in 1964, and Selma, Ala., where police beat hundreds of people marching in 1965. Both towns now have black mayors. “Problems remain in these States and others,” Roberts wrote, “but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our Nation has made great strides.” He concluded: “If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula.”