The U.S. Supreme Court has eviscerated a key portion of federal legislation that has for decades prevented some states and local jurisdictions from denying members of minority groups the most sacred right of Americans: the right to vote.
In a 5-4 ruling, the justices declared unconstitutional Section 4 of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act that establishes a "coverage formula" to determine which states and local governments fall under Section 5, which requires some states and localities to get federal approval before they can change their election laws.
The advance-approval requirement has worked to ensure access to the polls for minority voters in places where voter laws had directly or indirectly kept them from voting prior to 1965. The states that must get approval for new voting laws are mainly in the South. The ruling implies the inequities the law was enacted to stop aren't now a problem in the United States.
Chief Justice John Roberts' conservative-majority opinion seems to imply that states like Mississippi, Alabama and Texas have moved past their inclinations to restrict voting rights, but the past two general elections indicate otherwise.
In fact, most of the nine Republican-dominated states covered in Section 5 tried to pass voter-ID laws that would have kept some minority voters, immigrants, older and disabled voters from exercising their rights. If not for the Voting Rights Act, and its watchdog role, election results would have been skewed to favor Republican candidates.
Congress can come up with a new formula that would meet what Roberts called "current conditions," meaning, we suppose, that these days, official attempts to discriminate are no longer worrisome. But that is doubtful.
Roberts' opinion said the law, which Congress has renewed repeatedly, most recently in 2006, relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.
The court may be right that the law needs to be updated, but Congress, prior to the ascent of the tea party, has not seen fit to alter it. And that is not likely to happen anytime soon, or as long as Republicans, whose party tried to limit voting access just last year, are the majority in the House.
The court ruling ignores what has long been the will of Congress. The conservatives were too quick to give states and localities with a history of discrimination a pass to continue their attempts to limit voting rights. With this decision, those states have a better chance to succeed.