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In an earlier demonstration, protesters pleaded with the high court to 'protect their vote' and preserve the important oversight provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Supreme Court Puts 'Dagger in the Heart' of Voting Rights Act

In 'major step backwards,' high court guts important provision protecting against discriminatory voter suppression schemes

Lauren McCauley

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court Tuesday has "sounded the death knell" for a key provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, laying a blow to the millions of Americans who are dependent on Congressional oversight for fair elections.

"What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act," said Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, following the news of the vote, which gutted the Act from protective provisions that had previously allowed courts to block discriminatory attempts to pass voter identification requirements and cutbacks on early voting.

This ruling "threatens to make second-class citizens out of millions of Americans," added watchdog group, Common Cause.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. joined the majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented. 

“Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the Voting Rights Act,” wrote Ginsburg, adding, “When confronting the most constitutionally invidious form of discrimination, and the most fundamental right in our democratic system, Congress’ power to act is at its height.” 

The abolished legislation, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, determines which states and localities are required to get federal approval before changing any voting laws based on those locations having a history of racial discrimination. Previous to the ruling, nine states and parts of seven others were required to obtain the approval.

Section 5 of the act, which sets the pre-clearance requirement, was not itself struck down though, without Section 4, "is without significance," writes the New York Times.

By keeping Section 5, Congress is technically able to pass a new bill based on contemporary data—according to the ruling—for determining which states should be covered. However, according to SCOTUSblog, with the staunchly partisan gridlock in our current Congress, this "will be exceptionally difficult politically."

And according to analysts, "the chances that the current Congress could reach agreement on where federal oversight is required are small," the New York Times reports.

“In practice, in reality, it’s probably the death knell of this provision,” noted SCOTUSblog publisher, Tom Goldstein.

The case was brought before the high court after Shelby County, Alabama filed a suit on the basis that Section 5 had "outlived its validity and unfairly targets certain states," after the Justice Department vetoed a 2008 attempt by the county to redraw one of its electoral maps effectively reducing the number of black voters in that district from 70.9 percent to 29.5 percent.

"The sad irony of today's decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the Voting Rights Act has proven effective," lamented the dissenting justices.

"Discrimination at the ballot box is a real problem and causes real harm to our democracy," added Rea Carey, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, in a statement blasting the ruling. "This ruling is a major step backwards in the ongoing fight for a truly free and fair democracy and democratic system."

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