The U.S. Supreme Court shifted the burden for fair elections to Congress yesterday when it ruled that a 5-decade-old formula to determine which states and localities must have federal permission before changing voting procedures is unconstitutional.
In an emotionally charged 5-4 vote, the court said a key part of the Voting Rights Act is outdated. It rejected the formula to determine which places needed close Justice Department scrutiny because of a history of racial discrimination, as evidenced by low voter registration or turnout in the 1960s and 1970s, and the past use of devices, such as literacy tests.
To restore the "preclearance" requirement, Congress has to devise a formula that reflects current patterns of voter discrimination. The 2012 election certainly provided evidence that close federal oversight is still important to our democracy. Efforts to suppress the voting last fall extended far beyond the handful of jurisdictions covered in the old formula. Fifteen states passed laws or issued executive orders -- for instance, imposing voter ID requirements or early voting restrictions -- that could suppress the minority vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a public policy institute. Only four were on the preclearance list.
While it's time for Congress to update the list, partisan paralysis makes it unlikely that it will. But unless it steps up, the nation will lose the most efficient tool the historic Voting Rights Act provided to prevent race-based voter discrimination. Without federal intervention before an election, citizens will be saddled with the time and expense of suing to reverse changes that compromise the right to vote.
Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act as recently as 2006. But it didn't update the formula that required eight states and numerous political subdivisions -- including Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx -- to seek preclearance. Now, Congress shouldn't abandon the federal government's aggressive protection of voting rights in the face of evidence that discrimination has expanded beyond its historic footprint.