Supreme Court Decision on the Voting Rights Act

The United States Supreme Court held today in Shelby County v. Holder, a 5-4 ruling, that affects Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  The Court holds the law unconstitutional and that Congress’s formula, “can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdiction to pre-clearance.” Today’s decision is a disappointing setback for voting rights, and it serves as a reminder of the importance of state constitutions and state courts in upholding citizens’ fundamental right to vote.
The Law Center will pursue such relief in state court starting July 15, in a two-week trial seeking a permanent injunction blocking Pennsylvania’s restrictive new law that forbids citizens to cast an in-person ballot unless they have a photo ID. At a pretrial conference yesterday, the Applewhite v. Commonwealth case was reassigned to Judge Bernard L. McGinley. Applewhite raises claims under the Pennsylvania constitution, which, unlike the federal constitution, contains strong language affirming citizens’ right to vote. In 2012 we won a preliminary injunction that blocked Pennsylvania’s restrictive new photo ID requirement from taking effect in the November 2012 election. The Commonwealth Court later extended this preliminary injunction to cover the May 2013 primaries.
Today’s Supreme Court decision does not directly affect Pennsylvania, which is not among the jurisdictions covered by the now-invalidated aspects of the Voting Rights Act. It also does not affect the Applewhite v. Commonwealth lawsuit.

Congress first passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. In 2006, Congress reauthorized the Act by an overwhelming majority in the face of a mountain of evidence that discrimination persists in voting practice.  The Fifteenth Amendment prohibits race discrimination in voting, and it specifies that, “The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Nonetheless, the Supreme Court today held that Congress violated the Constitution by renewing the Voting Rights Act, because a majority of the Court disagreed with the formula Congress used to determine which states and counties warranted greater federal scrutiny over elections. The majority specifically disagreed with the use of voting data from the 1960s or 1970s to determine where to apply the federal scrutiny.

Today’s decision reaffirms our work and our mission to ensure that every citizen has a right to vote and that every vote is counted as cast. Stay tuned as we head back to court in a few weeks to continue the charge to ensure all Pennsylvania residents can meaningfully participate in our democracy.