In two decisions this term, the Supreme Court has changed the political landscape on voting rights. Reaction to the court’s latest decision, in Shelby County v. Holder, ranged from outrage (“Supremes Gut Voting Rights Act” at Huffington Post) to just-the-facts-ma’am (“Supreme Court voids key part of Voting Rights Act because law uses data ‘that does not reflect racial progress in U.S.’” at NYPost.com).
What will these decisions mean for older voters?
In our coverage of voter registration issues during the most recent presidential campaign, and again this spring, the focus has been on whether stricter ID requirements disproportionately affect older and disabled voters as well as poor and minority voters:
On June 17, the Supreme Court answered the question raised by our blog post about the Arizona case. In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, the court held that a mail-in voter registration form accepted by the federal government must suffice for the state.
The June 25 Shelby decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts (complete decision – .pdf), seems to have gone in a different direction. In plain English, here’s what it said:
Most provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which says that every American must have an equal right to vote, apply to every jurisdiction in the country.
In addition, the law directed the Justice Department to pay special attention to nine states, mostly in the South, and counties and townships in seven others states — all places where discrimination against minority voters had a long and troubled history.
Whenever one of those places wanted to change a voting law, it first needed the Justice Department’s permission.
Congress had reauthorized that provision several times, most recently in 2006. It’s this “preclearance” provision that the court swept away on June 25, saying that it was based on old misbehavior. Roberts said that preclearance wasn’t wrong on its face, it just had to be specifically adjusted by Congress to the realities of today.
With the Justice Department’s oversight now suspended in these areas, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Texas, on the list of states formerly needing preclearance, will be able to go ahead with its strict new voter ID requirements. Attorney General Greg Abbott announced June 25 that its new voting law would go into effect June 27.
- States will have more leeway in crafting new laws.
- Until and unless Congress acts on new criteria for preclearance, it’s the federal government, and unhappy citizens, who must now prove that changes in election laws keep them out of the voting booth. Before, in preclearance areas, the states had to prove in advance that their laws didn’t harm prospective voters.
There is concern that the proliferation of new voter ID laws requiring proof of birth or citizenship may disenfranchise not only minority and poor voters, but also the disabled and older voters, who usually participate most actively in our nation’s political life.
Older voters may not be able to afford copies of necessary documents, or be savvy enough to search for them; they may have been born in a place, or at a time, when birth certificates or other documents were harder to come by; and they may not be able to drive to places where “free” IDs are available.
Next steps? Here’s NBCNews.com’s take on the day’s top legal story: “A divided Congress gets political hot potato from high court.”
To be sure, it’s not the only one this session.
Also of Interest
- How to Make Sure You Get to Vote
- In PA, Voter ID Law Threatened to Exclude Nearly 10 Percent of State’s Voters
- Join AARP: Savings, resources and news for your well-being
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