Shelby County v. Holder: Less federal supervision of changes to voting laws

This election explainer was written by Amy Howe. It is part of SCOTUSblog’s 2020 Election Litigation Tracker, a joint project with Election Law at Ohio State.

Shelby County v. Holder is a 2013 case in which a divided Supreme Court struck down the provision of the Voting Rights Act containing the formula that was used to identify state and local governments that must get approval from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws and procedures – a process known as “preclearance.” The preclearance requirement, found in Section 5 of the law, was designed to prevent voting-related discrimination by governments with a history of such discrimination; until the court’s 2013 decision, it applied to the entire states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

In a decision by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court explained that although “things have changed dramatically” in the states covered by the preclearance requirement, with improved rates of voter registration and voter turnout among minorities, the formula that the Voting Rights Act used to determine who must comply with the requirement was “based on decades-old data” with “no logical relationship to the present day” – which, the court concluded, isn’t fair. So although the preclearance requirement remains in place, the Shelby County ruling means that no one has to comply with it unless Congress enacts a new formula, which it has not done. Voting-rights groups contend that, without the federal government’s supervision, state and local governments have been able to implement laws and policies that make it harder for minorities to vote – for example, by requiring identification to vote or reducing hours for early voting.

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