In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, meaning that school boards and other local and state governments in areas with a history of discrimination in election matters no longer had to win federal approval for any “change in voting.”
Writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that nearly 50 years after the adoption of the Voting Rights Act, “things have changed dramatically. ... Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels.”
The court did not completely strike down Section 5 of the law, which requires jurisdictions with a history of discrimination in voting practices to get approval for any change in voting from the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal district court in Washington. Section 5 covers nine states—Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—as well as certain jurisdictions in several other states, including California and North Carolina.
Instead, the court invalidated the formulas used to define which jurisdictions were covered by Section 5 of the voting rights law, which Congress had renewed in 2006.
“Congress did not use the record it compiled to shape a coverage formula grounded in current conditions,” the chief justice added. “It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day.”
Writing for the dissenters, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that even though minority registration and voting had increased in the Section 5 jurisdictions, covered states and local governments turned to racial gerrymandering, discriminatory annexations, and switches from single-member electoral districts to at-large membership to keep minority representation down.
“The evidence was indeed sufficient to support Congress’ conclusion that racial discrimination in voting in covered jurisdictions remained serious and pervasive,” Ginsburg wrote. “Congress approached the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA with great care and seriousness. The same cannot be said of the Court’s opinion today.”
The record in the case was full of examples where the Justice Department or the federal court had rejected changes in school district redistricting maps and to at-large board membership. Since the Shelby County decision, any school district in a covered jurisdiction has not had to submit such changes for federal approval.
A version of this article appeared in the December 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as Inside a Key Voting-Rights Precedent