Conservative activists and black leaders celebrated the Supreme Court’s Tuesday decision to update the Voting Rights Act (VRA) as a recognition of the progress that the nation has made in race relations.
“I’m pleased; it’s time that we put those Voting Rights Act provisions that basically segregates the country behind us,” said Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute and longtime critic of racial preferences and affirmative action. “It’s a new era. The court understands that and now we can begin to move on.”
The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the federal government could no longer force southern states to “pre-clear” all voting laws and procedures, as well as congressional district maps, with the Department of Justice. The majority, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, ordered Congress to update the 40-year old data on discrimination before determining which states would fall under federal supervision.
“If Congress had started from scratch in 2006, it plainly could not have enacted the present coverage formula,” Roberts wrote. “It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between states in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story.”
Sen. Tim Scott, a black Republican, told BuzzFeed in a statement that he supported the decision, which will free his native South Carolina from pre-clearance.
"Punishing six southern states because of past failures does not help us in the present and certainly does not help find our path to the future,” he said. “All states should be treated equally, and today’s decision provides for that opportunity.”
Liberals slammed the decision. One Minnesota state representative tweeted that conservative Justice Clarence Thomas was an “Uncle Thomas” for joining the majority. President Barack Obama released a statement saying that he was “deeply disappointed” by the decision.
“Today’s 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,” Obama said.
Supporters of the ruling said Obama is living in the past, pointing out that blacks across the country had higher voter participation than whites in 2012.
Constitutional law professor Horace Cooper, who is black, said Obama had no one to blame but Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice for the decision.
“His efforts to stop voter ID laws across the nation and his plans for quota for representation on everything from congressional seats to non-partisan elected boards are the reasons this took place,” Cooper said. “Holder ill-served this administration, was wrong on law and policy, and he should resign.”
NAACP launched a petition, which claimed the decision left “no … mechanism” in place to protect minority voters. Cooper said that Democrats and the NAACP have greatly exaggerated the ruling’s impact, saying that the court is only asking for a “modern database” to evaluate if there is still systematic discrimination in voting laws.
“The Department of Justice can only go after you after you’ve engaged in actions impacting minorities … it’s the [DOJ’s] abuse of that discretion that led to where we are today,” Cooper said.
Linda Chavez, who helped reauthorize the 1975 Voting Rights Act as a congressional staffer, called the decision “terrific.”
“I was a huge proponent of the Voting Rights Act … the most effective Civil Rights law ever passed, but pre-clearance needs to be revisited because the world has changed,” she said. “This isn’t saying that that if there are bad actors, the federal government can’t something about it; it’s just that you can’t use 40-year-old data to do it.”
She pointed to Virginia, one of the states subject to pre-clearance, as a textbook example of progress. The state has elected two black governors since the VRA passed and voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
“The decision is an acknowledgment that we’ve made enormous changes in racial justice,” said Chavez, founder of the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO).
CEO general counsel Roger Clegg echoed Chavez’s sentiments, saying that the “current formula is based on obsolete data and practices that have been illegal and out of practice for years.”
He said the decision could also crack down on segregation in political mapmaking. State officials have gerrymandered districts to create safe minority seats, which has inadvertently diluted minority presence in previously competitive districts.
“This will diminish the amount of segregation and gerrymandering,” he said. “It’s very sad that this statute, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement, has lately been abused in a way that is flatly at odds with its ideals.”
VRA expert Abigail Thernstrom said the end of gerrymandering could help elevate black politicians beyond the safe minority seats, as well as encourage the GOP to court black voters. This hurts the capacity of minority politicians from seeking statewide office.
“Gerrymandered safe seats are not a gift to black and Hispanic politicians and communities,” she said. “It just encourages very race-conscious campaigns, so what you get are marginal elected officials, who are way out of the mainstream and cannot run the bi-racial coalitions needed to win statewide office.”