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Eric Foner: VRA Decision "Green Light" to Disenfranchise Voters

Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr. looks on. Credit: Wiki Commons.

The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, has struck down the critical Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 legislation that banned discriminatory practices in federal, state, and local election laws.

The Voting Rights Act was formulated to target areas with a history of poll tests and historically low registration and turnout for federal oversight. Jurisdictions that fall under the Act's authority are required to pre-clear changes in local election laws with the federal government,

Section 4 determined the mechanism of determining the target areas; Section 5 of the Act, which provides for the actual pre-clearance requirement itself, was not ruled upon by the Court.

In his majority opinion Chief Justice John Roberts wrote“today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

Currently, nine states -- Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia -- are subject to federal oversight; individual counties and/or municipalities in California, Florida, Maryland, New York, and North Carolina are also covered by the Act.

The Court's decision drew condemnation from President Obama. John Lewis, the civil rights leader-turned-Georgia congressman, told ABC News that he was “shocked, dismayed and disappointed” by the Court's decision.

Many historians are equally upset.

Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and author of the landmark Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, wrote in an email that the decision is “a green light to states with a long history of slavery and racism to use more modern methods (voter ID laws, changes in districting, limits on poll opening hours) to disenfranchise voters.”

“The cynicism underlying the decision … astounds me,” wrote Clayborne Carson, professor of history at Stanford University and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute. Congress held hearings on the Voting Rights Act in 2006, and voted to renew the act for twenty-five years in 390-to-33 vote across bipartisan lines.

“By implying that [the Court's] goal was to fix the legislation by forcing Congress to change the pre-clearance formula [of Section 4], they are obscuring the fact that Congress retained the formula in order to avoid a deadlocked debate over a new formula.”

Still, some historians defend the Court's decision. H.W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin (itself the subject of a major Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action released yesterday) wrote in an email that the reasoning in Justice Robert's decision was sound.

“If violations of voting rights occur, the evidence should be contemporary rather than historical. Half a century is a reasonable statute of limitations on a subject such as this.”