A deeply divided Supreme Court threw out the most powerful part of the landmark Voting Rights Act on Tuesday.
The decision was deplored by the White House. Mostly Southern states now free from nearly 50 years of intense federal oversight of their elections cheered the ruling.
Split along ideological and partisan lines, the justices voted 5-4 to strip the government of its most potent tool to stop voting bias — the requirement in the Voting Rights Act that all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting, mainly in the South, get Washington’s approval before changing the way they hold elections.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a majority of conservative, Republican-appointed justices, said the law’s provision that determines which states are covered is unconstitutional because it relies on 40-year-old data and does not account for racial progress and other changes in U.S. society.
The decision effectively puts an end to the advance approval requirement that has been used to open polling places to minority voters in the nearly half-century since it was first enacted in 1965, unless Congress can come up with a new formula that Roberts said meets “current conditions” in the United States.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, representing Georgia’s 9th District, said in a statement that it’s a victory for all Americans and urged congressional action.
“Even in the divisive times we find ourselves in right now, Congress must find a way to come together, make smart decisions for the wellbeing of our citizenry, and rework the current formula to get it right,” the statement said.
The prior approval requirement had applied to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covered certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan. Coverage was triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.
Georgia Republicans cheered the decision while Democrats blasted it. State leaders praised the state’s progress in racial equality and said the nation no longer needs Section 5, which required the preclearance.
“Over the last half century, Georgia has reformed, and our state is a proud symbol of progress,” Gov. Nathan Deal said.
Georgia Democratic Party Interim Chairwoman Nikema Williams released a statement saying she reacted with both outrage and disgust over the decision.
“It is unfathomable to me that our High Court would disenfranchise so many citizens,” Williams said in the statement. “With a stroke of a pen, the Court has essentially invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”
President Barack Obama, the nation’s first black chief executive, issued a statement saying he was “deeply disappointed” with the ruling and calling on Congress to update the law.
Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said he believes the state and Gainesville are very different places than they were in the past.
“I don’t think that (at-large voting) is an issue,” Rogers said. “I think at-large voting has worked well as long as the member lives in the ward.”
The decision has upset civil rights groups which especially worry that changes on the local level might not get the same scrutiny as the actions of state legislatures.
Former Hall County Commissioner Ashley Bell said he found the Department of Justice staff helpful as the county went through the redistricting process after the 2010 census. He said Tuesday’s court ruling shows that discrimination can happen anywhere, not just the South. He said he hopes that it doesn’t become a political hot potato in the 2016 presidential race.
“I think there’s clear issues where we’ve had instances of localities having voting rights changes that don’t meet the smell test,” Bell said.
Macon-Bibb County recently had its election suspended because it tried to move a general election to July. Macon lawmakers have denied any racial motive.
“I think it’s clear there’s less minority voting participation in summer elections,” Bell said. “To arbitrarily move an election from November to July- that sort of move should be able to have some scrutiny.”
The ruling means that a host of state and local laws that have not received Justice Department approval or have not yet been submitted can take effect.
Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department “will not hesitate to take swift enforcement action, using every legal tool that remains available to us, against any jurisdiction that seeks to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ full and free exercise of the franchise.”
Those federal tools include other permanent provisions of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit discrimination and apply nationwide.
Arturo Corso, a Gainesville attorney, said if the Republican Party continues to lose women and minorities, the lines may not matter.
“It’s a small victory for conservative Republicans, but it’s really a victory for game-rigging,” Corso said.
In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the prior approval provision was necessary “to prevent a return to old ways.”
Justice Clarence Thomas was part of the majority, but wrote separately to say anew that he would have struck down the advance approval requirement itself.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.