Primary tabs

Challenges to the Voting Rights Act: Shelby County v. Holder 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Voting Rights Act in numerous cases. Then, Shelby County, Alabama sued U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in 2013. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in this case fundamentally altered the way the Voting Rights Act is enforced throughout the country.

Shelby County v. Holder (2013)

Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act defined the jurisdictions, or voting districts, that must have proposed changes to election law pre-approved (preclearance) by the U.S. Attorney General or federal court. These jurisdictions were then covered by Section 5 of the law, based on their past history of discrimination.

Shelby County, Alabama argued that Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional. Their legal case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision held that Section 4(b) is unconstitutional.

Majority Opinion

The Shelby County majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, included these points:

  • Requiring some states to have their election laws pre-cleared violates the “fundamental principle of equal sovereignty” among the states.
  • The circumstances that justified preclearance in the past no longer exist. Times have changed. Voter registration and turnout is now almost the same for Black and white citizens in the Voting Rights Act’s covered states. Court orders on voting are rarely evaded or ignored. There are now many elected officials from minority groups.
  • “Congress…must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. It cannot rely simply on the past.”

Dissenting Opinion

The Shelby County dissent, written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, included these points:

  • Congress may use any rational means to address racial discrimination in voting under the 15th Amendment. Congress held extensive hearings to determine that the Act was still needed before deciding to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006.
  • The principle of “equal sovereignty” among the states, cited by the majority, does not apply in this case. It applies to states when they are admitted to the U.S., but not once they have joined the union.
  • Even now the Attorney General still receives proposed  voting law changes that are not approved, because those changes would be racially discriminatory in purpose or effect. Preclearance is still needed to avoid backsliding.

Justice Ginsburg concluded, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”