Voting Rights Act Supreme Court Ruling

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. The issue was the mandate that certain States and jurisdictions receive preclearance from the federal government before making any changes to their voting practices. This includes changing polling places, having special, elections, redrawing district lines, and changing the date of a vote. This ruling means that, for the time being, no jurisdictions will be required to get preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5, and with it the practice of preclearance, was not struck down by the court, however. “We issue no holding on Section 5 itself, only on the coverage formula,” the Court wrote. Instead, it was the specific formula in Section 4 by which States and jurisdictions were selected for preclearance which the court determined unconstitutional. “Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” the majority wrote. “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions.”

The underlying legal principle involved in this case was the structure of our federalist system and State sovereignty. “Section 5 of the Act required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting—a drastic departure from the basic principles of federalism,” Justice Roberts wrote for the majority. “Section 4 of the Act applied that requirement only to some States—an equally dramatic departure from the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty.”  The Courts determined that the formula used in Section 4 violated that equal sovereignty. “Congress has made a finding that the sovereignty of Georgia is less than the sovereign dignity of Ohio,” Justice Kennedy wrote of the act in 2009.

The court noted that at the time of original enactment, voting registration for blacks in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi were roughly 50 percentage points or more below the figures for whites. Presidential voter turnout now exceeds that of whites in 5 of the originally covered jurisdictions, however, and is less than one half of one percentage point lower in the 6th, based on the most recent figures.

Additional Resources

The Supreme Court of the U.S., Shelby County v. Holder:

The U.S. Department of Justice, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act:


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