Voting Rights of 1965 SCOTUS Decision

The Supreme Court of the United States of America on June 25, 2013 struck down the coverage formula found in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Any discussion of mid-20th century civil rights is sure to paint portraits of racial divides and barbaric times of our nation in all justice-minded students of U.S. history. However, the discussion around this decision is not one of civil rights, but rather states’ rights. Not surprisingly, the decision was split among ideological lines with dissent from traditionally liberal Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. (A discussion of judicial activism is outside the scope of this post.)

Of the decision, and in contravention of discussion of the relevant aspects of the decision, President Obama responded:

I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act – enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress – has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

In his response, the President incorrectly supposes that the primary issue of the ruling is that of civil rather than states’ rights. This irresponsibly and without any factual support suggests the conclusion that there are present day abuses (or that such abuses would occur absent the watchful eye of the federal government) of voting rights and disenfranchisement of citizens in the jurisdictions affected by the “coverage formula” as discussed below.

Correctly encapsulating the primary issues of the decision, Chief Justice Roberts writes of the majority:

Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in §2. We issue no holding on §5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions. Such a formula is an initial prerequisite to a determination that exceptional conditions still exist justifying such an “extraordinary departure from the traditional course of relations between the States and the Federal Government (emphasis mine).” Presley, 502 U. S., at 500–501. 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.

The “coverage formula” discussed in its current form requires historically discriminatory jurisdictions (including nine States and several additional counties) to seek blessing on “all changes to State election law—however innocuous—until they have been precleared by federal authorities in Washington, D. C.,” according to the SCOTUS opinion.

This necessarily creates an undue burden on these jurisdictions in the present day. While the intention of the Act in its form prior to this decision was just, noble, and necessary, its present day technical merits fall short when viewed against the backdrop of a cost/benefit analysis, acting almost as a sort of retributive measure against the affected jurisdictions and trampling states’ rights.

In the Act’s pre-decision form, administrative changes and updates to voting procedures in these jurisdictions were required to be evaluated by an overbearing Federal Government with delays in decisions potentially lasting several years. This represents an anachronistic, heavy-handed, and unconstitutional response to the historical southern disenfranchisement problem that has all but been eradicated in modern times.

This ruling should therefore not be construed as an erosion of the protections of equal suffrage as enshrined by the 15th Amendment of the Constitution and respected by all democratic and just citizens, but instead as a democratic return of power to the States from the federal government as envisioned by the Founders.

The majority of the opinion of the SCOTUS highlights the primary issue in this case, noting that the 10th Amendment of the Constitution reserves to the States all powers not specifically granted to the federal government including “the power to regulate elections.” The decision should be applauded by champions of states’ rights and all those who believe that the power of the government should rightfully reside with the people in local municipalities.

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