This law covers many pages. But the heart of the act is plain. Wherever, by clear and objective standards, states and counties are using regulations, or laws, or tests to deny the right to vote, then they will be struck down. If it is clear that State officials still intend to discriminate, then Federal examiners will be sent in to register all eligible voters. When the prospect of discrimination is gone, the examiners will be immediately withdrawn.
And, under this act, if any county anywhere in this Nation does not want Federal intervention it need only open its polling places to all of its people.
~ President Lyndon Johnson, Remarks on the Signing of the Voting Rights Act (Aug, 1965)
In a 5-4 vote, the United States Supreme Court today issued a ruling that struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, landmark legislation prohibiting race-based discriminatory voting practices by states, subject to federal government oversight and enforcement.
As we discuss in our junior U.S. history classes, the Voting Rights Act ended nearly a century-long-record of voter suppression tactics such as poll taxes and literacy tests largely aimed at African Americans. Specifically, the Act prohibits states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
The decision in this case, Shelby County v. Holder, ends requirements in the Act that certain states and jurisdictions -- mostly in the South -- with a history of race-based discrimination and low voter registration and turnout gain pre-approval (called preclearance in the Act) from the federal government before enacting changes to their election laws.
More specifically, the ruling strikes provisions in the Act that established the formula for determining which states and jurisdictions are subject to federal oversight. It leaves intact provisions allowing for federal oversight, but without direction as to how those be used. In practical terms, the provisions are now inapplicable.
In his ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the preclearance provisions were “based on 40-year-old facts having no relationship to the present day.”
“Congress — if it is to divide the states — must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions,” he wrote. “It cannot simply rely on the past.”
In other words, it is now up to Congress to pass a new bill to determine where federal preclearance of voting laws would be required.
Chief Justice Roberts was joined in the majority by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Alito and Thomas (who wrote a concurring opinion). Justice Ginsburg wrote a dissent and was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.
This map demonstrates the jurisdictions that had been subject to voting law preclearance by the federal government. The light purple indicates those states/jurisdictions added in 1970 and 1975 amendments based on their use of English-only ballots where 5% of the voting-age citizens speak a single language other than English.
Map: New York Times
See the following from John Schwartz of the New York Times for more on the Roberts ruling and Ginsburg's dissent:
For a fascinating look at some of the history of the Voting Rights Act passage, check out this from Pacific Standard: