The US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, has ruled that a landmark law of the Great Society era, the Voting Rights Act, does not reflect today’s racial progress; giving states like Florida a chance to show that it can run fair elections for the first time in decades.
Five Florida counties, Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry, and counties in eight other states, mostly in the South, have been subject to “pre-clearance” of election law changes to protect voters against racially discriminatory laws.
“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”
Yesterday, the justices said Congress must devise a new formula to determine which states and counties should remain subject to federal oversight of election law changes; since the current criteria, established between 1965 and 1975, does not accurately reflect the ability of minorities to register to vote or elect candidates of their choice in 2013.
For example, last fall, Florida faced severe criticism because of long voting lines. This spring, the Legislature changed election laws to expand the location and number of approved “early voting sites” and to give elections supervisors the option to offer up to 14 days of early voting for 12 hours a day — not eight hours as previously established.
Because of Tuesday’s ruling, the block of five counties is no longer subject to federal oversight before implementing the Legislature’s plan to solve its own problems.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a July hearing to begin the process of retooling the law. So, unless Congress acts quickly, critics of the Supreme Court ruling have no formula to determine which states or counties should be subject to federal review — rendering that part of the Voting Rights Act unenforceable.