Supreme Court Strikes Down Current Coverage Formula to Voting Rights Act

June 25, 2013 12:00 am

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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court today struck down the coverage formula used to determine which states and political subdivisions are subject to the preclearance requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a civil rights law that has protected the right to vote for people of color since 1965. Importantly, however, today’s decision did not strike down Section 5 itself, leaving it to Congress to devise a new coverage formula.

The American Civil Liberties Union intervened in the case on behalf of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and several residents of Shelby County whose voting rights are directly impacted by the County’s challenge.

“The court’s decision presents a real challenge to Americans’ fundamental right to vote. It is also a significant departure from the Supreme Court’s previous four decisions over four decades recognizing that Congress is in the best position to judge the value of the preclearance requirement and where it is most needed,” said Laughlin McDonald, special counsel and director emeritus of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project.

South Dakota has several counties that are affected by this decision including: Shannon, Todd, and Charles Mix Counties, and half of Bennett County.

“We encourage Congress to pass a new formula that protects the rights of minority voters on a bipartisan basis,” stated Jana Kooren, interim executive director of the ACLU of South Dakota. “We believe that several South Dakota counties, due to a history of abuses, should remain covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

Shannon and Todd County, and half of Bennett County were added to the list of places that needed to be pre-cleared under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 1972 after it became apparent that the Native American vote was being diluted in the Rosebud/Pine Ridge area based on how the Legislature had drawn the districts. Since these counties were added in the 70s there have been numerous legal battles to preserve this protection. Later in 2005, Charles Mix County was added to the list when the ACLU filed a suit alleging that the three districts for County commission were malapportioned and had the purpose and effect of diluting Indian voting strength. The case was settled by an agreement that the County would be subject to Section 5 until 2024.

Because the court’s decision strikes down only the coverage formula, but not the preclearance requirement itself, it is now up to Congress to draw a new formula that continues to protect the rights of minority voters.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is one of our nation’s most critical federal civil rights statutes. It ensures state and local governments don’t pass laws or policies that deny American citizens the equal right to vote based on race. Section 5, a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, requires certain jurisdictions that have a history of discriminatory voting practices to secure advance approval from the federal government before changing their election laws. These jurisdictions may “bail out” of Section 5 by maintaining a “clean record” – no evidence of discrimination in voting rights – for 10 years. More than 100 jurisdictions have done so in recent years.

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