Once again, race is front and center at the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. And once again, the bull’s eye is the 1965 Voting Rights Act, widely viewed as the most effective and successful civil rights legislation in American history. Upheld five times by the court, the law now appears to be on life support.
The provision at issue in Wednesday’s case applies only to specific parts of the country where discriminatory voting procedures were once rampant. It covers all of nine states, mainly in the South, plus parts of seven other states. To head off discriminatory voting procedures before they happen, the law requires covered areas to get approval from federal officials before changes can take place. So, for example, if an Alabama town wants to change polling places, or to change from an elected board to an appointed board, or to annex another part of the county, it has to first get permission from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C.
Congress came up with the formula in 1965 to cover areas of the country that had a history of blatant, even violent discrimination in voting; but the formula has not been changed since 1975, and it still relies on election data from 1972. That’s the crux of the issue before the court now: whether times have changed so much that Congress, in reauthorizing the law in 2006 without updating the formula, violated the Constitution.