SCOTUS strikes down key part of the Voting Rights Act

The Court ordered Congress to fix Section 4 of the landmark law banning racial discrimination at the polls

Published June 25, 2013 2:41PM (EDT)

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court has struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the part of the landmark law that creates a formula to determine which areas of the country must get preclearance from the Department of Justice before making changes to voting requirements. The Court held that the formula is unconstitutional "in light of current conditions."

In the majority opinion for the case, called Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts made it clear that the Court's ruling would not affect the nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting laid out in Section 2 of the VRA, but only the VRA's preclearance requirement. He also specified that the court was not ruling on the constitutionality of Section 5, the part of the VRA that requires those parts of the country covered by Section 4's formula to get preclearance before making changes to their voting regulations. The ruling is limited to Section 4, which simply lays out the formula that determines which specific areas are required to get that preclearance. Of course, without the Section 4 formula, Section 5 is effectively inoperable for the time being, because it has no application to any particular state. As a remedy, the Court noted that Congress could "draft another formula based on current conditions," but there will likely be big political hurdles to overcome for that to happen.

"The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s," Roberts writes. "But such tests have been banned for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in covered States have risen dramatically. In 1965, the States could be divided into those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout and those without those characteristics. 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."

In the dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued  that the Court "errs egregiously" by overriding previous Congressional reauthorization of the VRA. "Congress designed the VRA to be a dynamic statute, capa­ble of adjusting to changing conditions. True, many cov­ered jurisdictions have not been able to bail out due to recent acts of noncompliance with the VRA, but that truth reinforces the congressional judgment that these jurisdic­tions were rightfully subject to preclearance, and ought to remain under that regime," she writes.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who concurred with the majority, argued that Section 5 should be struck down as well, for the same reasons the Court struck down Section 4. "Today, our Nation has changed. '[T]he conditions that originally justified [§5] no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,'" he writes.

By Jillian Rayfield

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at

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Discrimination John Roberts Race Supreme Court Voting Rights Voting Rights Act