In a 5-4 decision, the court said the advance-approval provision of the Voting Rights Act, known as “preclearance,” can't be enforced. The court punted to Congress the job of coming up with a new way to determine which locations still need federal oversight to prevent discrimination at the polls.
The act applied to states and localities with a history of voting discrimination. In Florida, that was Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe counties.
“I want to make sure there's no racial discrimination in our elections,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a midday news conference. “Any time we have the opportunity to make our own decisions, I think that's great for our state.”
State lawmakers overhauled Florida's elections law during this spring's legislative session, undoing with Scott's approval some changes from two years ago. The 2011 changes had been blamed for long lines and confusion in the 2012 election; dueling political narratives at the time called it either voter protection or voter suppression.
But the 2011 changes — including a reduction in early-voting hours and requiring provisional ballots for voters who updated their name or address at the polling place — were subject to review under the federal voting act.
In a statement, President Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” with the court's ruling.
“Today's decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent,” Obama said.
Obama called on Congress to “pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”
The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 and renewed in 2006, makes localities and states with a history of voting discrimination apply to the U.S. Justice Department or a Washington, D.C.-based federal district court for approval before implementing changes to voting laws or methods.
In a case brought by Shelby County, Ala., one of the preclearance jurisdictions, the court didn't rule against the advance approval concept but said that the formula to determine what areas qualify for review was outdated and shouldn't be used.
That formula measures discrimination by use of literacy tests, “banned nationwide for over 40 years,” and evidence of low voter registration and turnout from the 1960s and early 1970s.
Until Congress decides what that new formula should be, the approval-in-advance provision can't be enforced.
“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the
legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” the opinion said.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Florida's chief elections officer, said preclearance has cost the state $500,000-$750,000 in legal reviews just in the last year.
“We're free and clear to follow through with our law now, without any restriction,” Detzner said. “It'll make more efficiencies and less confusion for the public, which I think is a really good thing.”
Moreover, individuals can still go to court and challenge an election law “without the Justice Department having to look over our shoulder every time the Florida Legislature thinks we need some changes in the law,” Detzner added.
Julie Ebenstein, an American Civil Liberties Union of Florida staff attorney, said she was surprised to hear a state official bring up the cost of the federal law.
“The state wasted so much money last year playing cat and mouse with this voting law,” Ebenstein said.
What's more, she added, individual lawsuits are burdensome and too expensive for most plaintiffs who suffer discrimination. The administrative process under the federal law was more efficient and less costly, she said.
Hillsborough and the other counties were subject to federal review because citizens of Hispanic origin were not registered or voting in sufficient numbers. Ballots and other elections-related materials will continue to be printed in Spanish as well as English, said Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer.
Most cases in which Hillsborough needed to get preclearance had to do with having to close a polling site and open another, Latimer said.
“If we have one in a church building, maybe the church sells the building, so we have to find other polling sites,” Latimer said, explaining that the county loses about one out of 10 polling sites every election.
“In Hillsborough County, I can assure you, it won't have any impact on (minorities) because we will continue to run open, honest and fair elections,” Latimer added.
Prominent minority residents of Hillsborough were not as confident the county would protect voting rights for all citizens without some federal oversight.
Carl Warren and his father filed a lawsuit in 1979, challenging at-large voting in Hillsborough County and Tampa.
Black candidates had never been able to win at the ballot box under the at-large system, Warren said, though a few blacks had been appointed to office.
The suit was finally settled in the early 1990s with the county and city each creating four regional, single-member districts and three at-large districts. Since that time, districts created with substantial African-American voting populations have elected black county commissioners and city council members.
But Warren believes an underlying, institutional racism, which he calls the “plantation system,” continues to hurt minorities socially, educationally and politically.
“When there is no oversight going on, I believe this community basically will not just return to pre-1979; I think it has the potential to become even worse,” Warren said.
“The reason is we're having some troubling economic times, so when you look at the adverse impact of our economic system, when it comes to appointing, electing African-Americans … they will recognize if they intend to stay in their positions, they're going to have to acquiesce and accommodate the white majority.”
Black historian and author Fred Hearns agreed. He walked across the infamous Edmund B. Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala., where police beat black civil-rights demonstrators in the 1960s.
The federal government, in passing the Voting Rights Act and enacting oversight and accountability measures in that law, was key to those long-ago victories, Hearns said.
“When you hear about that struggle and realize the sacrifices people made, you realize that we still need to protect people's voting rights,” Hearns said.
Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, called Tuesday's decision “disastrous for the state.”
“One wonders if the Supreme Court majority has been following the news in Florida, where this state has been rocked and nationally embarrassed from the partisan manipulation of our voting rights by our Legislature with a focus on passing laws that make it hard for minorities to register and vote,” Macnab said.
Desiline Victor became a symbol of voting obstacles when she had to wait three hours on line to vote in Miami-Dade County in 2012. President Obama later invited the 102-year-old woman to his State of the Union address.
And many Floridians still wince at the memory of the 2000 presidential election, with its butterfly ballots, hanging chads and an aborted ballot recount.
“Now, Florida citizens will be without federal protections until Congress acts in a state with a sordid history with regard to the suppression of votes,” Macnab said.
The case decided by the court Tuesday is Shelby County, Ala., v. Holder, No. 12–96. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were in the majority. Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.