Gannett Washington Bureau
The Supreme Court today threw out a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The 5-4 ruling invalidating Section 4 of the act means all or part of 16 states with a history of discrimination no longer need federal approval to make any changes, no matter how small, to their voting procedures.
Section 4 is the formula that Congress has used to determine which states were subject to the special treatment under Section 5 of the act.
Tuesday's ruling frees those parts of the country that had been subject to Section 5 - most are in the Deep South - to run their elections without getting their procedures pre-approved by the federal government.
The decision has a major impact on South Carolina, one of the states required under the law to get all of its election related procedures approved beforehand. Without Section 5, state and local election officials are free to redraw district boundaries or move polling places without first having to get the permission of the Department of Justice.
The Supreme Court had heard oral arguments Feb. 27 after Shelby County, Ala., opposed by the Justice Department and civil rights groups, asked courts to declare two key sections of the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
Section 5 bars election officials in jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, including South Carolina, from changing their voting procedures unless they first prove the changes won't hurt minorities. Section 4b uses a formula to determine which states, counties and municipalities are subject to Section 5.
Shelby County said the provisions are outmoded and unfair to parts of the country that have transcended their discriminatory pasts.
Civil rights groups countered that the provisions are the best defense against a return to the days when racism permeated election procedures in many parts of the country, particularly the South.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson backed Shelby County. He said it's unfair that other states have been allowed to pass new voter identification laws without interference from the Justice Department, but it took a trialand $3.5 million in state money to defend South Carolina's version in court last year.
Exercising their authority under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Justice Department officials rejected South Carolina's voter ID law, saying it could have a discriminatory impact on minority voters.
The state sued. The law was later approved after an agreement that lessened its impact on minorities.
South Carolina joined Arizona, Georgia and South Dakota in asking the Supreme Court to declare Section 5 unconstitutional in the Shelby County case.
"Section 5 was an important and necessary part of the effort to end voter discrimination in this country, but has now outlived its purpose," attorneys general from the four states wrote in court papers.
Others in South Carolina said Section 5 was still relevant and necessary.
The outcome of the trial over the state's voter ID law proved that point, according to the League of Women Voters of South Carolina and a handful of Democratic state lawmakers - state Sens. Bradley Hutto, Gerald Malloy and John Scott Jr., and state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter.
"South Carolina's recent experience shows that the effects of Section 5, in actual practice, are not so great or unmanageable as (Shelby County) claims, and are more than outweighed by the Constitution's demand that racial discrimination in voting be eradicated," the state lawmakers and league memberswrote in court papers backing the Justice Department.
The department had lodged Section 5 objections to proposed election-related changes in South Carolina 122 times since 1972 and 11 times since 2000.
Previous attempts to gut the Voting Rights Act have failed, and in 2006, Congress extended the law for 25 years.
But in 2009, the Supreme Court questioned whether the law's "current burdens" were justified by "current needs," essentially inviting another attempt to overturn it.
"Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp," said Edward Blum, director of the Project on Fair Representation, which financed Shelby County's challenge to the Voting Rights Act.
The county is in a predominantly white and heavily Republican area south of Birmingham and north of Selma, geographically close to the origins of the civil rights movement.
Alabama was one of nine states fully covered by Section 5 because of its history of discrimination. The section also covers parts of seven states.