In a highly-anticipated 5-4 decision today, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, ending nearly a half-century of robust federal supervision over the election procedures of states with histories of racial discrimination.
At issue in Shelby County v. Holder was the Act’s requirement that certain states and districts obtain federal approval prior to changing their election laws, in a process known as Section 5 “preclearance.” To determine which areas of the country would be “covered” and therefore subject to preclearance, Congress in 1965 wrote into the Act a coverage formula, also known as Section 4. This formula asked whether a jurisdiction had a voting test in the 1960s or 70s, and had low voter registration or turnout at the time; if the answer was yes, then Section 5 applied to that jurisdiction.
In 2006, Congress renewed the Voting Rights Act without making any changes to the Section 4 coverage formula. Shelby County, a covered jurisdiction in Alabama, challenged the constitutionality of the Act. Today, a majority of Justices agreed that the coverage formula “can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance,” saying that the decades-old data does not reflect the strides that states have made in eradicating voter discrimination. Chief Justice John G. Roberts’ majority opinion left it open to Congress to re-write a new coverage formula, but as Rick Hasen of the Election Law Blog notes, this is highly unlikely given the degree of polarization in today’s Congress. It’s interesting to note that the Court did not get to the constitutionality of Section 5, but it didn’t have to–invalidating Section 4 releases all jurisdictions swept up by the formula, effectively stripping the Voting Rights Act of most of its power.
Collectively, the majority opinion, concurrence and dissent run 68 pages long, but I’ve assembled some highlights from each Justice, which you can read by scrolling over the graphic above. (You can also enlarge the graphic by hovering over the icon in the top-left corner and selecting the link to “see more.”) Each dot will open up a box that shows key quotes from that Justice: one (or two) from the March oral argument, and one from today’s decision (if the Justice wrote an opinion, concurrence or dissent). The red dot indicates the author of the majority opinion. The yellow dots indicate the rest of the Justices who were in the majority, and the blue dots indicate the dissenters.