Nearly a half-century ago, Congress decided that the government could not end racial discrimination in voting simply by suing one state, county, or city at a time, because officials who were determined to keep minorities away from the polls were quickly shifting to new tactics. The only way to keep ahead of those tactics, Congress decided, was to bar the worst offenders among state and local governments from adopting any new election laws until they had first proved they would not discriminate. That was a massive shift in policy, and it worked: the law that Congress passed in 1965, the Voting Rights Act, is now widely credited as the most effective civil rights law in American history; even the Supreme Court has said so. But the Supreme Court has grown to be one of the skeptics about the constitutionality of the law, partly because of the very fact that the law has been so successful. ”Things have changed in the South,” the Court commented three years ago. And, at that time, it pondered striking down the key part of the 1965 law — Section 5 — on the theory that “the evil that Section 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated” in the states, counties, and cities that must obey that section. There are nine of those states, plus local governments in seven other states, that must get permission in Washington before they may change any law dealing with voting — no matter how trivial the change. The Court chose in 2009 to leave the law as is, but hinted that Congress should update it.
When Congress first drafted that law, it targeted states or communities with the most flagrant histories of bias against minority voters. It chose as its starting point the states that had used a discriminatory voting law or method that was in effect in November 1964. More recently, the formula was changed to key it to the situation as of 1972. Where the formula applies, states can only regain control over their election laws by proving that they have not discriminated for at least ten years. As long as the law applies to them, any change in voting provisions is automatically blocked as soon as it is adopted, and can only be put into effect with the permission either of the Justice Department or of a special federal court in Washington. If an entire state is covered, not only the state government but every one of its local governments, too, must obey the law. In other states where it applies, only specific local units are covered.
For much of the past decade, a chorus of new complaints has been rising among those states, counties, and cities still operating under Section 5, arguing that they remain singled out for the deep federal intrusion into their own self-government, when the conditions which justified that intrusion in the first place — or even in 1972 — have long since changed. The Supreme Court first upheld the law’s constitutionality in 1966, and has again upheld it as Congress extended it, although various members of the Court have expressed concern about its impact on the powers of states that must satisfy the law’s demands. Most recently, in 2006, Congress extended the law to 2032. Three years ago, after this last extension, the Court found a way to make it easier for covered areas to get out from under the law. It avoided the constitutional question, but remarked bluntly that the law “imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”
Full Article: Voting rights cases: Made simple : SCOTUSblog.