The Supreme Court Was Right on Voting Rights

But for the wrong reason, as Pennsylvania's flawed Voter ID law proved.

This morning, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, inciting a wave of liberal outrage. Since the historic bill was passed in 1965, the federal government has required nine southern states with a history of blocking minorities from the ballot, along with a smattering of other jurisdictions around the country, to clear any changes to their voting laws with the Department of Justice.

What the Court struck down today was not the necessity of “pre-clearing” troublesome states (Section 5), but the formula devised to single out those nine southern states (Section 4). Explaining his decision in his majority opinion today, John Roberts wrote that “history did not end in 1965.”

He’s right — the country has changed a good deal since then, and the Court has valid reason to believe that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is outdated. But not for the reason Roberts and the conservative wing state. The greatest flaw with the Voting Rights Act is not that it’s become useless or overly burdensome for Southern states — the DOJ recently refused to pre-clear blatantly discriminatory Voter ID laws in Texas and South Carolina ahead of the 2012 elections — but that it doesn’t cover enough territory.

Just look at Pennsylvania, which passed a Voter ID law in 2012 that was openly acknowleged to have been designed for political purposes. Or Wisconsin. Or Indiana. Neither of these states’ Voter ID bills required pre-clearance from the DOJ either. A state doesn’t have to had a racist past to enact politically opportunistic laws that disproportionately affect minorities.

Now, a caveat: By striking down Section 4, the Court rendered Section 5 moot. There are now no more states for the federal government to monitor, even if the monitoring itself is technically allowed. That said, Congress can now get back to work on a revision to the VRA that doesn’t allow purple states like Pennsylvania to so blatantly impersonate the Deep South. Whether it will is another question.