What Is The Voting Rights Act?


Shelby County v. Holder

One of the most hotly contested cases this Supreme Court Term is Shelby County v. Holder, also known as the Voting Rights Act case. But what is this case about?

The Voting Rights Act was established in 1965 to combat a century of racial discrimination at the polls in states with a history of discrimination. Section 5 requires that the 16 states covered by the Act receive federal approval of any changes to their election laws. While this was originally a five-year provision, it has been continually renewed by Congress. When it was renewed in 2006 for an additional 25 years, Shelby County of Alabama filed suit, claiming Sections 5 and 4(b), which provides then formula deciding which areas need coverage, were unconstitutional and in need of updating to reflect modern population and voter turnout statistics.

In this blog post, we plan to address several of the views held by those close to the issue.

Let’s begin with a summary of the arguments presented to the Supreme Court on February 27, courtesy of The Constitutional Law Prof Blog.

In a heated debate among judges and petitioners, it is clear that this is a complex issue with implications for racial equality, voting laws, and state rights.

But that may be the only point that people can agree on. The arguments as to how the Justices should rule are wide-ranging and passionate. Take a look at some of these views.

Defer to Congress

In this Reuters blog post, author Richard L. Hasen describes the Act and explains the need to defer to Congress. He argues that the representatives of the people found reason to renew the Act. It passed the Senate with a 98-0 vote and the House with a similar margin before being signed into law by President George W. Bush. With such a wide margin that included senators and representatives from the affected states, he simply explains that “the court need not protect states that did not take steps to protect themselves.”

Against the Act

In this blog post for the Cato Institute, Ilya Shapiro argues that Section 5 is unconstitutional and creates bad law. He explains why Section 2 covers the same issues that Section 5 does with the correct level of enforcement to ensure fairness at the polls.

Writing for The Heritage Foundation, Amy Payne claims the Act has outlived its purpose. Instead of continuing to ensure racial equality, she explains that the Act now gives unnecessary power to the federal government over the states.

Michael A. Carvin speaks on the Federalist Society’s SCOTUScast to explain the three signs he sees that the court will strike down Section 5. He bases his predictions on the Justices’ questions during oral argument and the history of the Act.

For the Act

In this blog post for Reuters, Morgan Kousser presents his case for the Act. He has collected a comprehensive list of over 4,000 incidents of voting rights incidents since 2009. Using statistics and the problems in recent history, he explains why the Act is still needed.

David A. Love argues for the Act in his post for The Grio. He denounces Scalia’s remarks made during oral argument and worries that conservatives aim to take voting rights away from minorities.

For more views, statistics, and alternatives, visit Reuters’ series of posts on the Act.

The Supreme Court will (most likely) be deciding this case next week – the last week of the Term. Stay tuned to find out what the implications of that decision will be.