By striking down a key section of the Voting Rights Act 1965, the United States Supreme Court has opened the door to the potential compromise of universal adult franchise, especially of the country’s ethnic minorities. The 5-4 majority decision, made on June 25 in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, abolishes Section 4 of the Act, which stated the conditions under which nine particular States, and specified counties in other States, had to submit proposed changes in electoral laws for prior federal government approval; in effect the decision also blocks Section 5, namely the preclearance requirement itself. The ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, holds that Section 4 is no longer necessary because African-Americans in the relevant States now have higher voter registration rates than whites, and because “blatantly discriminatory” violations of federal decrees are now rare. In a dissenting judgment, however, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes that whenever discriminatory practices have been banned, others have arisen, and that case-by-case litigation cannot prevent racially discriminatory election procedures.

Several rights groups have denounced the ruling; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People calls it “outrageous”. The States concerned have a long history of procedures which amount to discrimination on racial lines, even though the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution banned the practice over 140 years ago. Texas, in which Shelby county lies, has immediately started implementing a law requiring photo-identification for voting, and there is widespread evidence to support the ruling’s critics. The federal Justice Department has rejected 86 electoral changes from the listed areas in the past 15 years. Secondly, the photo-ID requirement will mainly affect African-American and Latino voters, as a majority of them are from poorer classes and find it difficult to get the kinds of documents required. Furthermore, State-level Republican parties systematically challenge ethnic-minority voters at the polling stations, for example by “caging”, that is, sending junk mail to voters in poorer neighbourhoods and then claiming that a failure to reply shows that the voters involved do not live at the addresses given in the electoral register. Moreover, there is virtually no chance that the now bitterly divided Congress can revise the preclearance section of the Voting Rights Act. To paraphrase Justice Ginsburg, African-American and Latino voters may well find that the Supreme Court has thrown away the umbrella when it is still raining on them. In sum, it is not just minority Americans who are potentially under threat, but American democracy itself.

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