The Supreme Court handed down one voting rights ruling on Monday, and left another for a later day. Both cases are, in a way, reflective of how American attitudes about race are changing. Monday's ruling, on the National Voter Registration Act, is about how the West is rapidly changing as the Latino population booms. The more consequential case on the Voting Rights Act's Section 5 is about whether the South has changed enough in the last 50 years.
The National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1993, and required state governments to let people register to vote at the same time they got their driver's licenses. In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council, Arizona required additional proof of citizenship to register to vote beyond what the federal form requires. With the growth of its Latino population — up 46 percent in the last 10 years — the state has enacted controversial immigration laws, like the one requiring police to demand the citizenship papers of anyone they have reason to believe might be an illegal immigrant. In a 7-to-2 decision, the Supreme Court struck down Arizona's voter registration requirements, finding that its law was preempted by the NVRA.
The Voting Rights Act case is much, much bigger. In Shelby County v. Holder, an Alabama county is suing over the VRA Section 5, which requires that certain voting districts that have a history of racial discrimination must pre-clear any changes to their voting rules with the Department of Justice. Shelby County says the law — which costs time and money to comply with — doesn't apply to every place equally, exceeds Congress's authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and therefore violated the Tenth Amendment and Article IV of the Constitution. Since 1982, DoJ has blocked 2,400 proposed changes to voting laws — including in 2012, in Texas and South Carolina. Has the South changed enough since 1965 Section 5 is no longer necessary? Many have argued yes. In 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts seemed to think so, writing, "We are now a very different nation." During oral arguments in February, Roberts asked whether the government believed "that the citizens in the South are more racist than citizens in the North." Project of Fair Representation director Edward Blum, who worked on Shelby County's lawsuit, said last fall, "The America that elected and re-elected Barack Obama as its first African American president is far different than when the Voting Rights Act was first enacted in 1965. Congress unwisely reauthorized a bill that is stuck in a Jim Crow-era time warp. It is unconstitutional."