ATLANTA — Across the South, Republicans are working to take advantage of a new political landscape after a divided U.S. Supreme Court freed all or part of 15 states, many of them in the old Confederacy, from having to ask Washington's permission before changing election procedures in jurisdictions with histories of discrimination.
After the high court announced its momentous ruling Tuesday, officials in Texas and Mississippi pledged to immediately implement laws requiring voters to show photo identification before getting a ballot. North Carolina Republicans promised they would quickly try to adopt a similar law. Florida now appears free to set its early voting hours however Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP Legislature please. And Georgia's most populous county likely will use county commission districts that Republican state legislators drew over the objections of local Democrats.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the 5-4 opinion that struck down as outdated a key provision of the landmark 1965 law credited with ensuring ballot access to millions of black Americans, American Indians and other minorities. Roberts' opinion gives Congress an opportunity to retool the law's so-called preclearance sections that give the U.S. Justice Department veto power over local elections. But the prospects of a quick fix seem uncertain, at best, given stark ideological divides on Capitol Hill on a host of matters.
President Barack Obama said he was "deeply disappointed" in the court overturning "well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair."
Election officials in Alabama's Shelby County, a suburban enclave nestled between civil rights hot spots Birmingham and Selma, brought suit asking the courts to invalidate Sections 4 and 5, which set preclearance parameters.
The Roberts majority, which included conservatives Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, sidestepped whether the advance approval requirement is constitutional, ostensibly leaving Section 5 on the books. But the justices, all appointed by Republican presidents, threw out the Section 4 formula that determined what jurisdictions must have the advance federal oversight.
Within hours of Tuesday's decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott declared on Twitter, "(U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder can no longer deny VoterID in Texas." The Texas Department of Public Safety announced later in the day that today it would begin distributing photo IDs under a 2011 law that Holder's lawyers had blocked under Section 5.
In Mississippi, the secretary of state said her office would begin enforcing a pending voter ID law for primaries in June 2014. North Carolina Republicans said they plan swift action on a pending voter ID bill.
The case does not affect the act's Section 2 prohibition against voter discrimination based on race, color or other minority status. Still, the burden shifts to a citizen who must prove discrimination, whereas the preclearance process required state and local governments to prove in advance that a policy wouldn't harm minority voters.
Also untouched is Section 3, which allows the government to require preclearance based on more recent discrimination. The Justice Department has used that provision to extend oversight in Arkansas and New Mexico.