U.S. Supreme Court voids section of voting rights law

The U.S. Supreme Court Tuesday struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant civil rights laws ever passed by Congress.  The law is designed to ensure the rights of minority voters, but critics have argued that some aspects of the law have become outdated.

The high court split along traditional conservative-liberal lines by a vote of five to four. The majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John Roberts who said the law relies on 40-year old data that does not reflect the racial changes that have occurred in much of the country.

The law was enacted in 1965 to address glaring problems, primarily in southern states where African-Americans were routinely blocked from voting.  The law sets out standards for close federal monitoring of voting and has been reauthorized by Congress several times since.

This latest Supreme Court decision strikes down a part of the law that sets the formula for which states and localities must make changes in voting procedures.  But the high court did not strike down another section of the law that requires states and localities to get pre-clearance from the federal government for any voting changes they may want to make.

Civil rights groups were disheartened by the ruling.

“We are deeply disappointed by the court’s decision today,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, who is with the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She spoke to reporters in front of the Supreme Court. “Make no mistake about what has happened.  The court has decided that it stands in a better position than Congress to determine how to protect voting discrimination.”

The Supreme Court decision leaves it up to Congress to change the part of the law that it finds out of date.

The White House issued a statement that said President Barack Obama was disappointed by the decision and called on Congress to ensure all Americans have equal access to the polls.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the law remains a useful tool to block discriminatory voting practices.

“These problems have not been consigned to history,” he said. “They continue to exist.  Their effects are real.  They are of today, not yesterday, and they corrode the foundations of our democracy.”

Conservative groups welcomed the high court decision.

“Back in 1965, an average black man in many areas in the United States couldn’t vote because there were things that were put in their way and various impediments to their voting,” said David Almasi, executive director of the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington. “Now we have a black president and we have in those same areas that were considered discriminatory back in 1965, we have black office holders that are very common.  We live in a much different world that needs to be figured into things.”

Almasi is also skeptical that Congress will move quickly to update the Voting Rights Act given that the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans.

“We are looking at some potential problems because it is a hot issue and Congress tends to not want to deal with the hot issues,” he said. “I think people need to realize that it is not the same world as it was back in 1965.”

The voting rights case was one of the most closely-watched cases of this Supreme Court term.  The high court will close out its annual session on Wednesday with two more highly-anticipated rulings on same sex marriage.

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