Voting Rights Decision Means Republicans Could Control House for Decades

Reid Wilson

The Supreme Court's decision to eliminate a key provision of the Voting Rights Act is likely to help Republicans alter voting rules and districts in key states, voting rights experts said in the wake of the ruling Tuesday, potentially setting off a string of dominoes that could bolster the GOP's majority in the House of Representatives for years, or even decades, to come.

The opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts and joined by the Court's four conservative members, ruled unconstitutional Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That section lays out the formulas for deciding which states, counties and cities must receive so-called "pre-clearance" from the Justice Department before making any changes to voting procedures.

The jurisdictions that needed pre-clearance under a 1975 revision had a history of discriminating against certain minorities. They include a handful of Southern states, where African Americans faced discrimination, and a number of counties and cities in other states where minorities faced hurdles in voting rights, including two counties in South Dakota, five counties in Florida and three boroughs of New York City.

Civil rights advocates had worried the Court might go farther by invalidating Section 5 of the Act, which lays out the manner in which a covered jurisdiction achieves preclearance. But without Section 4, Section 5 is effectively toothless.

The ruling is unlikely to immediately lead to changes in the makeup of the House of Representatives, observers said, because of one section the Court left untouched. Section 2 of the Act protects voting districts in which minority populations exceed 50 percent of the voting age population; the vast majority of Democrats who represent Southern states hold majority-minority districts, and national interest groups like the Democratic Party and the NAACP are likely to bring lawsuits if state legislatures tamper with district lines in an effort to dilute minority voting power. What's more, packing minority voters into certain districts can make other, neighboring seats lean toward Republicans.

It's at the local level where the ruling is likely to have the longest-lasting impact. In many Southern states, legislative districts that elect minority candidates don't cross the 50 percent threshold, said Michael McDonald, a George Mason University political scientist who studies voting rights and statistics. Those districts would have been subject to the protection of the Justice Department under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but not under Section 2.

McDonald pointed to Floyd Nicholson, an African American South Carolina Democrat who represents a state Senate district in Greenwood. Nicholson's district is about 33 percent black; the Justice Department could block any changes to Nicholson's district under Section 5, but not under Section 2. That means, in the next round of legislative redistricting, Republicans could theoretically split Nicholson's Democratic base among Republican districts. While losing Nicholson's state Senate district wouldn't hurt Democrats in Congress, it would further cement the Republican majority in the South Carolina legislature.

And in South Carolina, as in most other states around the country, the legislature draws Congressional district boundaries. Cementing control over the legislature helps Republicans keep the Congressional seats they already control.

"There are lots of districts like that at the state legislative and local level [where] the minority communities are too small to cross the 50 percent threshold," McDonald said. "It's really at the state and local level that we're going to see the impact of this ruling."

Eliminating pre-clearance requirements likely also means voting changes in Arizona, where the legislature is considering a bill that would make changes to key elements of the state's voting laws. The Arizona bill would prohibit organizations from collecting early and absentee ballots from voters and turning them in en masse, an activity the state Democratic Party and Hispanic organizations practice in an effort to boost turnout among voters who might not otherwise make it to the polls. Another provision makes it easier to purge names from a permanent list of early voters. Democrats have spent almost two decades pushing for greater access to early and absentee ballots, in hopes of expanding their voter base.

Both changes likely would have been challenged under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, because Arizona is one of the states that had been required to get pre-clearance before it alters election rules.

Similarly, several states that required pre-clearance are likely to move forward with voter identification laws that had been blocked by the Justice Department. Justice had approved voter ID laws in Virginia and New Hampshire, but it blocked stricter legislation in Texas, which was passed in the last few years.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said Tuesday's decision meant his state could implement the law without Justice's approval.

"With today's decision, the State's voter ID law will take effect immediately," Abbott said, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Democrats have reacted angrily to the Supreme Court's decision. Both President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder said they were "deeply disappointed," and the White House called on Congress to act quickly to revise pre-clearance requirements to comply with the majority opinion.

"As a nation, we've made a great deal of progress towards guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists," Obama said in a statement. "And while today's decision is a setback, it doesn't represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination."

But Republican opposition to the pre-clearance provision means any bipartisan agreement is highly unlikely.

"As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don't have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance," Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat, told reporters after the ruling was announced.