High Court's Decision Striking Down Key Provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 Cannot Stand

Release Date: 
June 25, 2013

Today, a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, upending a law that has been central to our nation’s commitment to eradicating the shameful legacy of racial discrimination in voting, especially in the deep South. The Court declared that the so-called “coverage formula” used to determine which states should be required to obtain preclearance for changes in voting laws was unconstitutional, but that Congress retains the authority to update the coverage formula. Demos, along with other members of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, filed an amicus brief in the case, Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, urging the Court to uphold the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

In response to today’s decision, Brenda Wright, Vice President for Legal Strategies at Demos, made the following statement:

“Today’s decision undermining the Voting Rights Act of 1965 cannot stand.  The story of the Voting Rights Act has been a story of pride in America’s commitment to confronting and overcoming the wrong of racial discrimination in voting. We cannot allow that pride to be dimmed by today’s wrong-headed decision. Congress now has the duty to come together with bi-partisan legislation to respond to this decision and ensure that our children will still be proud of our country’s commitment to protect the right to vote in the years to come.

“For over 45 years, the Voting Rights Act has stood as a bulwark against discrimination in voting. It is widely recognized as one of the most effective and important civil rights laws ever enacted. Former President Ronald Reagan, who signed one of the extensions of the Voting Rights Act, famously said that “the right to vote is the crown jewel of American liberties, and we will not see its luster diminished.” Congress re-authorized Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 with almost unanimous, bi-partisan support in both houses of Congress, based on an extraordinary record of thousands of pages of testimony and documentary evidence showing that some jurisdictions have continued to enact and implement discriminatory voting laws, and that the protections of Section 5 are still needed.

 “Events over the past several years, since the Supreme Court last considered a constitutional attack on the Voting Rights Act, have only strengthened the case for upholding the preclearance requirements of the law. Time and again, the Department of Justice and federal courts found that jurisdictions covered by the preclearance provisions of Section 5 have engaged in clear racial discrimination in redistricting and other voting procedures. This only underscores the need for Congress to respond to this decision to ensure that we retain core protections against such discrimination in voting.

Time and again, the Department of Justice and federal courts found that jurisdictions covered by the preclearance provisions of Section 5 have engaged in clear racial discrimination

“Reports from the argument before the Court in February 2013 indicate that Justice Scalia referred to Section 5 as a ‘racial entitlement.’ This is a shameless inversion of history. As Justice Ginsburg said in her dissent today: ‘The grand aim of the Act is to secure to all in our polity equal citizenship stature, a voice in our democracy undiluted by race.’

In responding to today’s decision, Congress should heed the words of Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights giant who still bears the scars that brought the Voting Rights Act into being:

The right to vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democracy. I risked my life defending that right. Some died in the struggle. If we are ever to actualize the true meaning of equality, effective measures such as the Voting Rights Act are still a necessary requirement of democracy.

Brenda Wright, an expert on the Voting Rights Act of 1965 who has argued two voting cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, is available for commentary. Most recently, Wright wrote on Section 5 in the Rutgers Law Review: Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act – Have the Past Three Years Strengthened the Case for its Constitutionality?