In striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Supreme Court has restored a measure of constitutional order. Based on 40-year-old voting data that doesn’t reflect current political conditions, this provision subjected a seemingly random assortment of states and localities to onerous burdens and unusual federal oversight.
To be clear, neither minority voting rights nor the ability of the federal government to enforce those rights were at stake in Shelby County v. Holder. Both of those were, are and will be secure regardless of this case and its consequences.
Instead, the court was considering whether the “exceptional conditions” and “unique circumstances” of the Jim Crow South still exist such that an “uncommon exercise of congressional power” is still constitutionally justified — to quote the 1966 ruling that approved Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act as an emergency measure.
As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court in 2009, the last time it looked at this law, the “historic accomplishments of the Voting Rights Act are undeniable,” but the modern uses of Section 5 — which requires federal “pre-clearance” of any changes in election regulation in certain jurisdictions — “raises serious constitutional concerns.” The provision maintains antiquated assumptions and flies in the face of the 15th Amendment’s requirement that all voters be treated equally.
Yet Congress renewed Section 5 in 2006 without updating Section 4’s coverage formula, and it ignored the court’s warning that “the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”
That second paragraph is especially important to keep in mind, as is the fact that Congress can always rewrite the pre-clearance sections of the Voting Rights Act in order to accurately reflect current circumstances. But neither Congress, nor the Court, nor all of the people who offer outraged commentary on the holding of the case can ignore the very basic fact that the country has changed since 1965. And I don’t know why we would want to ignore that fact, as it has changed for the better. Recognizing that change is not an admission of defeat for civil rights advocates–and I count myself as one. It is a declaration of victory, the kind that we have long waited to make.