The Supreme Court’s landmark ruling to gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act will change the country’s politics. And in some cases, the change could come as soon as 2014.
On the surface, the ruling now allows certain states to make changes to their voting laws without federal approval. But the political implications will reach beyond those states, especially as Democrats try to use the decision to energize minority voters for the midterm elections.
On Tuesday, the high court ruled unconstitutional a key part, Section 4, of the Voting Rights Act. That provision detailed the formula used to decide which states must have pre-clearance from the federal government before making changes to voting laws because, according to the now-voided provision, those jurisdictions had a history of discrimination.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. described the Section 4 coverage formula as outdated in his majority opinion, calling on Congress to develop a new way to pick which states must get federal approval. But it’s unlikely the House and Senate will pass something soon, given the contentious nature of voting rights and the gridlock on Capitol Hill.
As a result, it’s likely no state will have to seek federal approval to change its voting laws in the immediate future.
To be sure, the high court’s ruling will have a greater effect in the long term. For example, in 2020, states previously covered by the law’s Section 5 won’t have to get federal approval for their redrawn congressional maps, giving local officials new leeway to draw district boundaries. Those new maps will take effect in 2022.
But voters could see the effects of this week’s ruling much sooner as well. Here are four ways the ruling could play into the 2014 midterms:
1. Voter ID Laws
Within hours of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Texas secretary of State announced that new voter ID photo requirements would take effect immediately. Last year, a federal court struck down this voter ID requirement law, which was covered by Section 5.
Look for other states to do the same. A federal court struck down a similar voter ID law last year in South Carolina, another previously covered state. Both Alabama and Virginia were in the process of seeking pre-clearance to implement voter identification laws under the same provision, now voided because of the court’s ruling.
2. Political Messaging
Democrats will use the high court’s ruling to energize the party’s base. Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights icon, told MSNBC on Tuesday that the ruling “will motivate hundreds of thousand of people,” especially minorities, to vote.
The ruling comes at a crossroads for Republicans, who are looking at new ways to reach out to minority voters following the 2012 elections.
“The court essentially passed the ball to the Congress, and we’re going to make what House Republicans do with that ball a big issue in 2014,” said Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We’re not going to attack the Supreme Court. We’re going to attack Republicans for refusing to listen to the court and redo the Section 4 formulas.”
The GOP retort? It’s unclear. A top House GOP message guru hoped its party members will acknowledge the court’s decision and leave it at that. But some members, including Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, advocated for Congress to develop a new coverage formula.
“I don’t think we’ll know anything today or tomorrow or this week,” said Westmoreland, the House GOP’s point person on redistricting last cycle. “But at some point, we’re going to have to make a decision about whether to update it or just let Section 5 go away. “
3. Texas Two-Step
The country’s most-fought-over congressional map won’t have to be pre-cleared by the federal government anymore. In the short-term, that means the legislature will likely pass a court-ordered interim congressional map from the 2012 elections and use it for the foreseeable future. GOP Gov. Rick Perry has indicated he supports passing this map and plans to sign it into law.
The ruling puts a pause on the redistricting saga in Texas, where the original redrawn map was struck down during the federal approval process in 2012. However, Democrats warn they will sue to overturn this map in federal court under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. That provision outlaws any voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race.
4. More Lawsuits on Section 2
The high court was clear in its ruling that it wouldn’t touch Section 2. Roberts wrote that this provision “applies nationwide, is permanent, and is not at issue in this case.”
As a result, activists will now use this as their primary legal vehicle to try to overturn changes to voting laws. But unlike Section 5, the onus is on the plaintiff to prove discrimination in Section 2, making the legal challenges arduous and expensive.
“Any challenger to an election law in a previously covered Section 5 jurisdiction is now going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and spend years fighting the law in Section 2, when the burden is on the plaintiff,” said Jeff Wice, a redistricting attorney who works with Democrats.