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Key part of Voting Rights Act struck down

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is unconstitutional, in a 5-4 decision authored by Chief Justice John Roberts. The decision broke down sharply along ideological lines.

The VRA, reauthorized by Congress in 2006, requires the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to “pre-clear” any change in law or regulation affecting access to the right to vote in jurisdictions covered by the section. For instance, the Justice Department used the VRA to block a recent voter identification law enacted in South Carolina.

North Carolina and South Carolina were both subject to the pre-clearance requirement because of their histories of segregation. Very few jurisdictions—and no states—had been removed from the preclearance list since the act became law. Alabama’s Shelby County alleged the law was unconstitutional because it placed different burdens on states and counties based on voting conditions that existed several decades earlier.

Roberts agreed, saying the formula used to decide which jurisdictions required preclearance were unconstitutional and based on “eradicated practices.” The court struck down the use of that formula and left the rest of the VRA intact, saying that Congress was free to devise a new formula for coverage based on current conditions. Some commentators had predicted that the court would strike down the use of pre-clearance entirely.


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