Our nation’s laws must apply uniformly to each state and jurisdiction. Tuesday’s 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court striking down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) restores an important constitutional order to our system of government, which entitles all 50 states to equal dignity and sovereignty.
Born from bloodshed in March 1965, when 600 black protesters marching for the right to vote in Selma, Ala., were set upon by state troopers wielding clubs and tear gas, the VRA was, as President Lyndon B. Johnson declared at the time of its passage, “a triumph for freedom as huge as any victory that has ever been known on the battlefield.”
The act was created to prevent voting discrimination. Unfortunately, in the almost five decades since its passage, amendments and legal developments have transformed this once-simple law into muddled and contradictory legislation. Since then, the VRA, now far removed from its original purpose of ensuring voting rights for millions of African Americans, had become a costly, pernicious tool for gerrymandering and incumbent protection.
Section 4 of the VRA had been used to determine which state and local governments would have to comply with Section 5, which required the specified state and local governments to get approval from the U.S. Justice Department before changing voting laws or procedures. Even though Tuesday’s decision allows Section 5 to survive, it has been rendered powerless now that Section 4 has been struck down.
Shelby County, Ala., challenged the VRA in 2010, arguing that Congress’s failure to modernize the law in light of the enormous improvements in minority electoral opportunities in the areas covered by Section 4 rendered it unconstitutional.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that there are no meaningful differences in minority voting opportunities between the covered and non-covered jurisdictions. These days, we routinely see African Americans and Hispanics win elections in white-majority districts in states such as Texas, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, to name a few.
The Supreme Court’s opinion is also a great testament to the character of the American people, who have labored to fulfill the guarantee of racial equality in voting. The American South long ago laid down the burdens of minority disfranchisement and has integrated African Americans fully into its political life. If Congress finds factual data that shows that disenfranchisement of minorities is occurring in places throughout the country, it can and should create new directives to deal with the disenfranchisement.
As Frank C. Ellis, Jr., the county attorney for Shelby County, said after the decision was released, “The justices correctly acknowledged that the covered jurisdictions should no longer be punished by the federal government for conditions that existed over 40 years ago. The South is an altogether different place than it was in 1965.” That is something that all Americans can celebrate.
Edward Blum, an American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow, is the author of The Unintended Consequences of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (2007). He also directs the Project on Fair Representation, a not-for-profit legal defense foundation based in Alexandria, Virginia, which provided counsel to Shelby County.