Explainer: The Supreme Court, Voting Rights and New York

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Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx are all covered by the Voting Rights Act - which might surprise you. Here's what today's Supreme Court decision means for the city.

What is the Voting Rights Act?

A federal law that was designed 48 years ago to protect minority voters.

Was that necessary?

Yes. For decades, African Americans in the South faced obstacles to voting: poll taxes, literacy tests and other bureaucratic maneuvers to keep them from registering, plus harassment, intimidation and physical violence if they tried to vote. In 1964, demonstrations were held throughout the South to protest these measures. In Mississippi, voting rights activists were killed. In Selma, Ala., peaceful marchers were attacked by state troopers.

In response (and with skillful politicking from President Lyndon Johnson), Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson signed on Aug. 5 1965. The law forbid literacy tests and required the appointment of federal examiners to oversee elections. Section 4 laid out a formula describing which sections of the country fell under the law. The majority of the states covered were in the South - but not all of them. 

Section 5 required those covered jurisdictions - basically, any states and counties which had tried to block minorities from voting - to submit to "preclearance." Preclearance meant that any changes covered jurisdictions made to their local elections - say, moving a polling place or printing materials in languages other than English or redrawing electoral districts - had to be first OK'd by DC's District Court or the U.S. Attorney General. It was a gigantic achievement for the civil rights movement.

The coverage formula and preclearance were initially set to expire after five years, but they've been regularly renewed (and even expanded). In fact, in 2006, the Act was reauthorized for another 25 years. 

What was at issue in the Supreme Court case?

Shelby County, Ala., challenged Section 5. The County said that Congress' reauthorization of preclearance under the 1965 coverage formula violated the Tenth Amendment. The Tenth Amendment, you'll remember, said that any powers not specifically granted to the federal government are reserved to the states or the people. Those opposed to the Voting Rights Act have said that it requires too much money and time and is no longer necessary.

What did the Supreme Court decide?

The Court struck down Section 4, the 1965 formula that decided which states should be covered. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction. Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were."

In other words, the Court said that the formula was outdated. If Congress wants to try another formula out based on contemporary data, though, they're welcome to. 

Will that happen?

It's not likely, in our political climate.

So they didn't strike down the whole thing?

No. But Section 5 - preclearance - doesn't matter unless there's a formula that determines which states are subject to it. "Tuesday's decision means that a host of state and local laws that have not received Justice Department approval or have not yet been submitted can take effect," the Associated Press wrote. "Prominent among those are voter identification laws in Alabama and Mississippi."

I thought this was only a Southern thing.  New York City is one of the most diverse places in the country - why are we affected?

Because New York State had passed a law in 1921 requiring an English literacy test to vote. This was mostly an anti-immigrant move, following on the heels of other anti-immigrant election bills that first required voters to register every year and then moved election day to Saturday - the Jewish Sabbath.

The people most hurt by the English literacy test? Puerto Ricans, most of whom were educated in Spanish-speaking schools on their home island at the time.

In 1968, Hispanic voter registration was so low that Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx became covered jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act. Voter suppression of various minorities was working so well that fewer than half of voting-age people voted. Until today, we were still covered.

But the Voting Rights Act doesn't affect us now, right?

On the contrary. As recently as last year, federal observers monitored polling places in the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. The Queens County Board of Elections was just directed in January to provide written language assistance at the polls in Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi in order to comply with the Language Assistance Provision of the Voting Rights Act (this section was not struck down by the Court). And supporters of the Voting Rights Act have pointed out that there are still regular charges of gerrymandering, or redrawing electoral districts in order to disenfranchise certain minority groups.

The Justice Department has rejected only 13 out of 2,000 changes submitted for approval since 1968, according to the New York Times. Among those 13 the Times said was "a City Council redistricting plan that the government said would hurt Hispanic voters, a proposal to replace the elected members of a Bronx school board with appointed officials and an election procedure plan that failed to provide Chinese-Americans with translated ballots." None of the city's proposed changes have been rejected since 1999.

In January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council filed a joint amicus brief supporting the VRA. In a statement at the time, Bloomberg said that the act had been necessary to protect the right to vote for disenfranchised New Yorkers, though the city "has come a very long way since the 1960s."

This decision may impact New York voters as early as the September primary elections. Last week the state legislature passed a bill to bring back the lever voting machines. That move would have required pre-clearance from the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act before the decision. Now that's been overturned, it speeds the way for New York to bring back the old machines.

To hear a full interview with Myrna Perez, Deputy Director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University about how today's ruling will effect New York City, click audio above.