WASHINGTON – The historic Voting Rights Act – the 1965 law that ended a century of racial discrimination at the ballot box and gave black citizens a political voice across the South – survived a strong challenge at the Supreme Court on Monday as justices pulled back from a widely anticipated decision to strike down a key part of the law as outdated and unfair to today’s South.
Instead, the justices agreed to narrow the law’s impact by allowing municipalities with a clean record to seek an exemption, in the case of Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder.
Although the court sided with the Texas water district that brought the case, its decision preserved the core of the Voting Rights Act, including special scrutiny for changes in election rules by Southern states.
Monday’s decision, considered among the most important of the term, came as a surprise and a relief to civil-rights advocates.
Civil-rights lawyers and liberal activists were prepared to denounce Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court’s conservative justices had they struck down one of the landmark laws of the civil-rights era.
Three years ago, Congress by nearly unanimous votes in the Senate and House had extended the law for another 25 years. President George W. Bush signed the measure into law.
But in January, the court voted to hear a challenge to the law. Civil-rights advocates were astonished in April when the most conservative justices derided the law and signaled they were inclined to throw it out.
Without question, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is an unusual provision. Its effect has been to keep the South under special scrutiny because of its history of racism.
The law requires most states in the South and more than 12,000 municipalities to “pre-clear” with the Justice Department any changes in their voting and election procedures. These can range widely, from the location of polling places to the shape of electoral districts in the state legislatures.
Its original aim was to prevent county officials from adopting schemes, such as literacy tests, poll taxes and shifting the hours for voter registration, to keep blacks off the voter rolls. It has had enormous impact in its nearly 45-year history, opening the polls to millions of black voters.
The law was extended in the 1970s to several counties in Northern California, New York and elsewhere that had a high percentage of non-English-speaking residents.
More recently, however, Congress did not update the law to change its scope or account for new problems. Critics said some states, such as Ohio and Florida, have had much publicized voting problems, yet they are not covered by the law.
“Things have changed in the South,” Roberts said in announcing Monday’s decision.
Blacks and whites now register to vote at the same level across the South, he said. And by some measures, the gap between whites and blacks is less in much of the South than elsewhere in the nation.
Roberts spoke for a unanimous court in saying the water district could escape the law, along with 12,000 other political subdivisions, by going to court and showing they had not violated any provision of the Voting Rights Act for a decade.