This morning, the Supreme Court struck down a core part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, “a landmark law that opened the polls to millions of southern blacks,” as Bloomberg’s Greg Stohr put it. In a much-anticipated 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Congress could not require states with a history of disenfranchising minority voters to get federal approval before redrawing election districts, changing voting rules, or moving polling places. “What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act,” Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and seminal figure in the civil rights movement, told ABC News’s Jeff Zeleny.
How important is this decision? Well, since 2006 the U.S. Justice Department has blocked 31 attempts to change voting laws, most of them in the nine, mostly Southern states fully covered by the relevant section of the law. (They are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.) Most, if not all, of those proposed changes would have aided Republican electoral fortunes by making it harder for minorities to vote (because most vote Democratic). But the Justice Department stepped in.
Now that can no longer happen. These nine states, along with those partially covered by the law, will be able to pursue whatever changes they like, free of federal oversight. And they’re all but certain to make changes that favor GOP candidates. As Reid Wilson of the Hotline points out, all nine states have Republican-controlled legislatures.
On its face, this looks like a big victory for Republicans. But is it really? I suspect it will turn out to be a poisoned chalice. Many of the GOP’s current problems stem from the fact that it is overly beholden to its white, Southern base at a time when the country is rapidly becoming more racially diverse. In order to expand its base of power beyond the House of Representatives, the GOP needs to expand its appeal to minority voters. As the ongoing battle over immigration reform demonstrates, that process is going poorly and looks like it will be very difficult.
The Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act will make it easier for Republicans to hold and expand their power in those mainly Southern states. That will, in turn, make it easier for them to hold the House. It will also intensify the Southern captivity of the GOP, thereby making it harder for Republicans to broaden their appeal and win back the White House.