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The 8-1 ruling by the US Supreme Court Monday on the Voting Rights Act has been greeted with a mixture of relief and praise from many civil rights groups and liberal commentators. “It’s fair to say this case was brought to tear the heart out of the Voting Rights Act, and today that effort failed,” said Debo Adegbile, lead attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

But a closer examination of the decision and the political context in which it was made reveals that the court has opened the door to gutting the most fundamental US civil rights law, whose passage in 1965 marked a watershed in the struggle against institutionalized racial discrimination.

In Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District Number One v. Holder, a local utility district in Austin, Texas sued the federal government over the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires that certain state and local government units apply to the US Department of Justice for “preclearance” before they make any changes in their election rules, including changes in voter registration procedures and electoral district boundaries.

The 1965 law specified nine states and parts of several others, including most of the former Confederacy: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and most of Virginia. Alaska, Arizona and portions of Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Dakota and New York City are also affected, most of the latter because of discrimination against Hispanic and Native American voters. Including all their counties, cities, school districts, utility districts and other governmental entities, a total of some 17,000 jurisdictions are subject to preclearance.


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