High Court Strikes Down Central Tenet Of Voting Rights Act

In striking down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court specifically said that Congress could approve a new, constitutionally sound formula to determine what jurisdictions need federal oversight. But is Congress likely to do so?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. With that statement today, a slim majority of the Supreme Court ruled that a central tenet of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional.

CORNISH: It is section 4, which lays out a formula that designates certain states and counties, mostly in the South, as requiring federal government approval before they change voting laws. The original formula was quite specific, based on assessments of voting discrimination in those states and counties in the 1960s and early '70s.

SIEGEL: Today, writing for the five-person majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that formula must be based on what he called current conditions and he made it clear that Congress can go back and rethink the process, even though it reauthorized the Voting Rights Acts as recently as 2006 by a huge margin. Congress is where our coverage begins this hour. NPR's David Welna has reaction from Capitol Hill.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: The court's decision to throw out the part of the Voting Rights Act that singles out states or counties for federal prescreening of new election laws prompted a response on Capitol Hill that was as divided as the justices who made that ruling. In an interview with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had only praise for the court's decision.

REPRESENTATIVE BOB GOODLATTE: Quite frankly, I think there's an element of fairness in the court saying that you can't treat some jurisdictions differently than others in how you judge whether or not their arrangements for allowing people to vote are fair.

WELNA: And John Cornyn, the Senate's number two Republican, complained that Attorney General Eric Holder had refused to allow new voter ID requirements in his home state of Texas under the part of the law the court ruled unconstitutional today.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: So this is a tool that can be manipulated, too, in the hands of a political Department of Justice. And so I can understand why the court would say this needs to be updated.

WELNA: Among Congressional Democrats, the response was much more negative. Harry Reid is the Senate Majority Leader.

SENATOR HARRY REID: There's general displeasure, and that's an understatement, in my caucus about what the Supreme Court did.

WELNA: Here's what how Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy sized up the high court's ruling.

SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY: I think basically they've gutted the Voting Rights Act.

WELNA: Leahy pointed out that Congress in 2006 held 52 hearings on the Voting Rights Act before voting overwhelmingly to renew it for another 25 years.

LEAHY: You know, after all the hearings we had and all the work we did to get these guidelines and make them work, it's almost like saying we don't care what you do, we're not going to make it work. But I will try and the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings and will look at legislation.

WELNA: Those hearings are to begin next month but Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin, who's a member of the Senate Judiciary Panel, doubts there will be any updates soon of the rules for singling out states in the Voting Rights Act.

SENATOR BEN CARDIN: It could take substantial time before we could work out additional legislation. Civil rights legislation doesn't pass very easily in the Congress. Knowing the makeup of this Congress, it will be even more challenging for us to get legislation passed.

WELNA: Cardin doubts the Republican-led House will be inclined to reformulate the so-called pre-clearance rules. Most of the states that have been affected by the law are GOP strongholds. But UCLA law professor Adam Winkler says there's another reason why Congress is not likely to act. Coming up with new rules is just too politically toxic.

ADAM WINKLER: It would require Congress to identify which states are more likely to pass discriminatory laws than others. In essence, Congress would have to say this state is racist, this state is not. Politically, that seems to be a nonstarter.

WELNA: And if that's so, there may be no way to enforce the part of the Voting Rights Act that requires federal authorities to review changes in election laws. Both Winkler and Democrats in Congress predict that will likely mean states that have held back on changing their laws because of the Voting Rights Act may now feel free to pass new legislation, such as voter ID requirements or restrictions in voting hours, which is why they say the court's ruling is a huge setback for effective voting rights. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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