The Voting Rights Act, one of the pillars of America’s attempts in the 1960s to end de facto discrimination against its minority communities and in particular blacks, was more or less demolished by a ruling from the US Supreme Court which said the formula deciding which parts of the country it applied to was out of date.
Barack Obama, who grew up in the civil rights era to become the first black US president, said he was “deeply disappointed”. In a statement, he added: “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. The 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.”
The key Section 5 of the Act that obliges certain states, mostly in the South, and some counties and cities, including Manhattan in New York, to seek permission from the federal government before changing anything to do with how citizens vote in elections was not touched by the Justices. But in a 5-4 vote along left-right lines, the Court said that when the US Congress renewed the 1965 Act seven years ago it should have revised its geographical coverage.
Because Congress would struggle to agree on any such re-casting of the formula the likely effect of the ruling will be to nullify the Voting Rights Act, which was a response to years of manipulation of election laws in some parts of the US to deter minorities from voting.. While it was a major disappointment to civil rights advocates and the White House it please those who argue that the Act was a relic of an bygone time and amounted to a smear on those parts of the country bound by it.
“Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.” As well as most of the South – the case was bought by a town in southern Alabama – the Act also covers Manhattan, Brooklyn, some counties in California and South Dakota, and towns in Michigan and New Hampshire.
“I think what we must do is really put pressure on Congress now to deal with this,” Al Sharpton a leading civil rights acvitist and an anchor for MSNBC News said after the decision was unveiled. “This is a devastating blow to those of us that need that protection, especially given the voter suppression schemes that we saw in 2012.”