UPDATE: Supreme Court Strikes Down Portion Of Voting Rights Act

The U.S. Supreme Court vacated a major provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act on Tuesday morning. The Court did not invalidate the entire law, and Alaska’s Congressional delegation has mixed reactions.

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Congress ratified the 13th and 14th amendments in the shadow of the Civil War.

The 13th outlaws slavery and the 14th ensures equal protection under the law. The 14th Amendment is the umbrella for Lyndon Johnson’s crowning achievement – the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 of that bill requires nine states, mostly in the south but also Alaska, to get approval from the Department of Justice before changing any election laws.

The Court left that intact, but deemed Section 4 unconstitutional. That section requires Congress to determine which states need pre-clearance. Pre-clearance could be needed be for large decisions like district lines – all the way down to the makeup of a local school board.

Section 4 dictates which states need to follow Section 5.

“I’m, I’m thinking through what the next step is,” Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, said.

He’s a former governor of that state – one of the nine required to get pre-clearance from the federal government.

The Court struck section four Kaine says, because the most recent authorization of the Act relied on outdated information.

“In the 2006 reauthorization, just relying on the ’65 map was not sufficient,” Kaine said. “You had to talk about the current evidence, and whether there was patterns racial discrimination in the jurisdictions or not.”

Democrats are pouncing on the issue as a political opportunity. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee started soliciting money soon after the ruling, warning of future attacks on voting rights.

Senator Mark Begich, who’s up for reelection in 2014, calls the ruling a setback for Alaska Natives and bush communities. He says voter suppression still exists in the state.

“A couple of election cycles ago absentee voting booths were not allowed to be in certain areas,” Begich said.

Decades ago, the state forced Natives to pass literacy tests to vote. That’s since been abolished, and Senator Lisa Murkowski says Alaska has made improvements on voter suppression – by making sure Natives have access to interpreters.

“We are getting to that point where we are seeing states work aggressively hard and in a fair and balanced way, to see that the voting rights of all Americans aren’t disenfranchised,” Murkowski said.

Writing in the majority opinion, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts says voter discrimination still exists – that’s why the law will remain on the books.

And by invalidating Section 4, the ruling puts the onus on Congress to craft a new formula to determine which states need preclearance.

Congressman Don Young says that’s unlikely to happen.

“There isn’t much appetite right now, because there are so many other things on the plate, to really address the issue as it should be addressed,” Young said.

While that may be the case in the Republican-controlled House, the Democratic-controlled Senate will jump at the chance.

Already, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy has said he’ll hold hearings on a new formula for Section 4 next month.

pgranitz (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  202.488.1961 | About Peter

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