ATLANTA – When the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last week, it handed Republicans tough questions with no easy answers over how, and where, to attract voters even party leaders say they need to stay nationally competitive.
The decision caught Republicans between newfound state autonomy that conservatives covet and the law’s popularity among minority, young and poor voters who tend to align with Democrats. It’s those voters that Republicans are eyeing to expand and invigorate their core of older, white Americans.
Congressional leaders must decide whether to try to rewrite the provision the court struck, but it’s not clear how such an effort would fare in the Democratic-led Senate and the Republican-controlled House. And at the state level, elected Republicans are enacting tighter voting restrictions that Democrats blast as harmful to their traditional base of supporters and groups the Republicans say they want to attract.
Southern Republicans celebrated Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion that effectively frees all or parts of 15 states with a history of racial discrimination from having to get advance federal approval for any election procedure.
The so-called “preclearance” provision anchored the law that Congress renewed four times since its 1965 passage as the crowning achievement of the civil rights movement for black Americans. The law contains an “opt-out” provision that allowed a jurisdiction to ask a federal court for release from preclearance if it has established a record of non-discrimination. Roberts said that process — never used successfully by an entire state — wasn’t enough.
Citizens can still sue to overturn state laws, but they’ll likely have to prove discrimination after the fact, rather than local authorities having to convince federal officials in advance that a law wouldn’t discriminate.
In Washington, Republicans like House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia embraced the nuances of Roberts’ ruling.
“I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside,” Cantor said, “and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who helped lead the law’s latest reauthorization when Republicans ran Congress in 2006, said the court “disappointed” him. Lingering discrimination, he said, compels Congress to update the act, “especially for minorities.”