In a decision that marks the end of a major civil rights-era reform, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the federal government can no longer force states and jurisdictions with a long-past history of voting discrimination to have to get federal approval for all of their voting laws.
The 5-4 ruling rewrites a key tool of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which for five decades has given the federal government unprecedented say in everything from how some states draw their congressional maps to where they place polling locations.
But beneath the legal ruling is a broader social significance, with the justices saying that past discrimination cannot be perpetually held against a state.
“The Fifteenth Amendment commands that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged on account of race or color, and it gives Congress the power to enforce that command. The amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority.
The court’s four liberal-leaning justices dissented.
The Voting Rights Act injected the federal government deep into states’ voting practices as a way of combating states — primarily in the South — who had a history of laws or practices that discriminated against black voters.
Nine states are covered in their entirety, while counties and townships in six other states are also constrained by the so-called “preclearance” section, which means they must send all voting changes to the federal government for review before they can take effect. That gives the federal government review over everything ranging from new congressional representation maps and voter-identification laws all the way down to moving a polling place across the road.