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Unfair Voting Restrictions are a Nationwide Problem Now

Not that the Supreme Court's decision will fix this

Today, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which identifies the areas covered by federal preclearance under Section 5. The ruling doesn't rejigger the congressional map, since the court didn't touch the legality of minority-majority districts, and Section 5 wasn't often used to reject Southern redistricting proposals. And just for good measure, Republicans like minority-majority districts, since concentrating Democratic votes into single districts creates more safely conservative districts. But the decision represents a setback for voting rights. Now, covered areas will be treated just like the rest of the country, so they’ll be able to cut early voting, implement voter-ID laws, make voter registration more difficult, and whatever else was part of the so-called “war on voting.”

In a sense, Chief Justice Roberts is right. There’s not a huge difference between the South and the rest of the country. Today, partisanship is the real motive for restricting voting rights, and those impulses exist far outside of Dixie. From that perspective, the outrage about the demise of Section 5 is a little odd. Section 5 is mainly important because the alternative, nationwide mechanisms to enforce voting rights are inadequate, not because anyone expects Mississippi to reinstate literacy tests or poll taxes. 

In fact, Section 5 was so effective that covered areas sometimes had better voting rights than uncovered areas. This strange development was on display last year, when Florida passed a law that limited the length of early voting. The law was widely interpreted as an effort to reduce minority turnout, since early voting is disproportionately used by African Americans. Federal courts blocked the rules from taking effect in five counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—but not in Florida’s 62 other counties.

So what’s the real problem? That after today's decision, those 5 counties might have shorter early voting times in 2016? Or that there wasn’t an issue for Florida’s 62 other counties? Clearly, the real problem is the latter, but I'm not expecting anyone to call for, say, broadening preclearance to the rest of the country. The good news? The "war on voting" isn't very effective at changing electoral outcomes. Obama won reelection, won Florida, and black turnout reached record highs.