Supreme Court rules on Voting Rights Act

Supreme Court Building

West façade of the Supreme Court Building by Franz Jantzen
Photo courtesy of

This 2012–2013 session has been a historic one for the Supreme Court, and one of the most notable cases is Shelby County v. Holder (, decided on June 25.

Shelby County v. Holder dealt with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Voting Rights Act worked to prevent racially discriminatory voting laws from being enacted in states that had a history of these practices (such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and brute force intimidation). Several weeks ago the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by ruling that Section 4—the part of the law that defined which localities needed to have their laws precleared under Section 5—was unconstitutional. The court’s Section 4 decision effectively eliminates Section 5. Section 5 required covered jurisdictions to seek preclearance of new or revised voting rules and procedures with either the U.S. Department of Justice or the federal district court. Because I am not a lawyer or any sort of political analyst, I thought it best to leave the full explanation to the professionals. SCOTUSblog, a Peabody Award–winning blog written by lawyers and law students about the Supreme Court, does a great job of breaking down case rulings for the layperson. The first formal voter literacy tests in the United States were introduced in 1890. Whites were exempted from the literacy test if they could meet alternate requirements like the grandfather clause. The grandfather clause meant that those who had the right to vote prior to 1867, or their lineal descendants, would be exempt from educational, property, or tax requirements for voting. Only whites voted in the South before 1867, so this automatically excluded blacks. Here are some examples of voter applications and literacy tests used in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 invalidated literacy tests, poll taxes, physical intimidation, and other methods that had denied African Americans the right to vote during the Jim Crow era. (

So what happens now? Here’s what Bill Yeomans, former acting assistant attorney general in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice had to say: “[T]he pre-clearance requirement, which is contained in Section 5 of the act, is quite simply one of the most effective laws ever passed by Congress. And what it required was that jurisdictions that were covered under the act report every election change to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance and no election change that was discriminatory could go into effect. That’s now gone, and it means that enforcement of the voting rights laws depends on the Department of Justice and private litigants going out and finding election changes. And that will be easy for the big ones. So for redistricting and major changes, they’ll be visible. For smaller changes, it’s going to be much more difficult for things like changing the location of a polling place or changing the hours of a registrar’s office. Those things simply aren’t going to surface the way they used to.”

To learn more about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, check out Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America, 323 KOT, available at the Alton Square library.

Judgment Days

Judgment Days: Lyndon Baines Johnson, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Laws That Changed America