Voting Rights Ruling By Supreme Court Draws Mixed Reactions
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
As we've been hearing, the reaction to the court's decision was strong and immediate.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Obama said he was deeply disappointed and he called on Congress to act. Civil rights groups say they have lost the most powerful weapon in their effort to ensure equal access at the polls.
MONTAGNE: But as NPR's Pam Fessler reports, some lawmakers in states where voting law changes were subject to federal approval are saying they're finally free of an unfair burden.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: It was barely an hour after the high court's ruling when Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott tweeted that his state's new voter ID law should now go into effect. Later in the day, he said it would immediately. A federal court had blocked the law last year as discriminatory. Abbott's response is just what civil rights advocates say they fear most: that the Supreme Court's decision on the Voting Rights Act will lead to a flood of new voting restrictions.
PANDA HARRIS: I am in shock, even though we knew the case was coming and that this could be the outcome.
FESSLER: Panda Harris, co-director of the Advancement Project, one of several civil rights groups that have been fighting voting laws that they say hurt minorities, the elderly and the poor. Her most immediate concern is in places like North Carolina, where lawmakers are considering cutting back on early voting, and in Virginia, which recently passed a strict new voter ID law. Both states had been required to get Justice Department approval.
HARRIS: Now, they don't have to do that. It can go into effect and somebody would have to sue and get an injunction to prevent it from discriminating against voters in the first election where it would apply.
FESSLER: Civil rights groups say they'll lobby Congress to act but they're also weighing their legal options. Voting changes can still be challenged under a different part of the Voting Rights Act and other laws, but the balance has clearly shifted. No longer do states that had been covered by Section 5 have to prove that their laws don't discriminate before they can go into effect. Steven Shapiro is national legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
STEVEN SHAPIRO: The burden is on the challengers to the voting laws. You have to go into court. The litigation is costly, expensive and difficult.
FESSLER: Which is as it should be, says Michael Goetz, a councilman and attorney in Beaumont, Texas. The city wanted to change its election procedures in an apparent effort to replace the black majority school board but it was blocked from doing so by the Justice Department. Goetz says townspeople spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting to get federal approval for a law they already passed by referendum. He thinks now the town will be able to do what it wants.
MICHAEL GOETZ: We feel like being out from under the burden of this coverage formula, we can go forth and we can have our elections and apply Texas law. And that is the way we in Texas feel like it should be.
FESSLER: And indeed, officials in several covered states applauded the high court ruling. Alabama's attorney general, Luther Strange, called it a victory for equal state sovereignty. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson said it meant that states like his would no longer have to jump through extraordinary hoops to make voting changes, as South Carolina did last year to require voters to show ID.
ALAN WILSON: Because we were under the pre-clearance standard of Section 5, we were guilty until proven innocent. And that cost us $3 million to prove our innocence.
FESSLER: Wilson says such procedures might have been needed when the Voting Rights Act was new but not today.
WILSON: We now have a state where we have an African-American United States senator, female Indian governor, minorities and women in unprecedented levels serving in elected offices. You know, South Carolina of 2013 is not the South Carolina of 1965.
FESSLER: And he notes if people think laws are discriminatory they can still sue, although civil rights activists think now lots of voters will be harmed before that can happen. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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