Voting rights advocates who celebrated after successfully beating back restrictive voting laws that some states tried to implement last year found themselves beat down by the Supreme Court’s ruling Tuesday that struck down a centerpiece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
With its 5-4 ruling, the Supremes pressed Congress to update Section 4 of the landmark act, saying that things have improved since the original formulas were crafted in 1965 that required federal approval for the slightest changes in election procedures in some states and localities.
The court’s action could free nine states, along with certain political jurisdictions in other states, from having to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before changing laws that have an impact on elections.
Texas, one of the nine, didn’t waste any time. The ink was barely dry on the court’s ruling when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced that the Lone Star State’s controversial voter ID law “will go into immediate effect.”
That law, which the Justice Department struck down as discriminatory towards blacks and Hispanics, at one point contained interesting provisions such as not allowing picture ID student cards from the University of Texas – a state-funded institution – to count as sufficient identification but saying a concealed gun license is fine.
Sponsors of a North Carolina voter ID law that was swatted back last year say they plan to re-introduce the measure after the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“In light of the history of this nation and the recent attacks on voting rights across the country, calling (Tuesday’s) decision a setback would be an understatement,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “The right to vote is the very foundation on which our democracy is built. However, we must not let this decision be the gridlock some individuals in this country hope it will be. Congress has no choice now, but to act.”
And what are the chances of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and bitterly-divided U.S. Senate approving a new Voting Rights Act formula on the cusp of the 2014 mid-term elections that will satisfy conservative justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito and the rest of the court?
“Well, good luck,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told McClatchy Newspapers on Tuesday. “I don’t think the current Congress has much of a chance to decide it one way or the other because of conflicts in the Congress. That’s a very touchy, very difficult, very sensitive area that’s very difficult to handle.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, was more succinct: “As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no pre-clearance,” he told reporters.
Still, Democrats say they’re going to try. Sen. Mike Begich of Alaska said he expects the chamber’s Democrats to come up with a new voting rights formula when the Senate returns from its July 4th recess.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia’s non-voting Democrat in the House, doubts that Congress will take up the Voting Rights Act issue this year. But she took a glass-half-full approach to the Supreme Court’s action. It could have been worse, she said, the court could have scuttled the entire Voting Rights Act.
As for whether a politically-poisoned Congress has the will to deal with the Voting Rights Act now, Norton noted that the lawmakers presented a unified front in 2006 when a rewrite of the Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
“The entire Congress stood behind the entire leadership and said ‘We are all for this bill,’” Norton told reporters. “I can’t imagine what they’ll say now: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was among them, House Speaker John Boehner was among them. Can they say ‘Although we stood here in 2006, we’re not going to try to update the formula?’ I don’t think they can say that with any credibility.”
But there was something Tuesday that should give Norton and other voting rights advocates pause: Republicans McConnell, Boehner, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who were a driving force in the 2006 Voting Rights Act renewal, were largely silent following the Supreme Court’s decision.