No one should be surprised by the Supreme Court's decision Tuesday that voids a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. For years the high court had been signaling that its majority felt the methods used to implement the law needed a modern-day update from Congress.
Four years ago the court considered whether implementation of the law remained constitutionally viable. The 2009 case provided no definitive answer to that question, but the opinion sent a crystal clear signal to Congress that the court was dissatisfied with the formula used to determine which states or areas were targeted under the act.
The law originally was passed to prevent disenfranchisement of minority voters. It was aimed directly at jurisdictions that had displayed a wanton history of implementing unfair and abusive requirements that were meant to discourage minority voting. It required that such states or jurisdiction "preclear" any changes to voting laws.
Most of those jurisdictions are in the South, but also includes Manhattan, Brooklyn, three California counties, South Dakota and towns in Michigan.
The court on Tuesday did not reject all of the Voting Rights Act, but it effectively tossed out two sections of it that pertain to the jurisdictions subject to the "preclearance" standard saying that the formulas being used were based on information that was 35 years old.
Experts disagree on the practical effect of this ruling. An easy remedy, of course, would be for Congress to do its job and update those formulas. We understand that given the current bitter partisan divide in Congress, such an action would be a difficult hill to climb. But we believe it is one worthy of the effort. Congress should begin that climb immediately.
Reaction to the decision ranges from hysterical to dismissive. We find ourselves somewhere in between. There is no question that the Voting Rights Act has been a valuable tool in the advancement of voting equality in our society. We believe it should remain so. There is also no doubt that those with nefarious intent will seek to exploit this decision to their own benefit.
But we take particular note that the court left standing Section 2 of the act, which allows for lawsuits to challenge any changes and decisions that affect voting rights. Frankly, that section is the one that has been used far more than the sections that were found constitutionally lacking. As a practical matter, the sections in question are used primarily by the Justice Department in redistricting cases and not for issues surrounding the ballot box.
There is time for Congress to establish a reasonable set of standards for full implementation of the act. Voters should insist that their representatives do so. In the meantime, we urge voting rights interest groups to be all that much more vigilant in using the courts to ensure fairness.