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Court blocks application of Voting Rights Act in Florida, unless Congress updates rules

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act cannot be enforced unless Congress comes up with a new way of determining which states and localities require federal monitoring of elections.

The justices said in 5-4 vote that the law Congress most recently renewed in 2006 relies on 40-year-old data that does not reflect racial progress and changes in U.S. society.

The court did not strike down the advance approval requirement of the law that has been used, mainly in the South, to open up polling places to minority voters in the nearly half century since it was first enacted in 1965.

But the justices did say lawmakers must update the formula for determining which parts of the country must seek Washington's approval, in advance, for election changes.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that he was "deeply disappointed" with the decision saying it "upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent." He called on Congress to act to "ensure every American has equal access to the polls."

Florida has five counties on the preclearance list: Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry. 

Gov. Rick Scott praised the decision that invalidated the 40-year old coverage formula used to ensure compliance with the Voting Rights Act in those counties. 

"Any time that we have the opportunity to make our own decisions, I think that's great for our state," he said.

Two years ago, Scott's administration tried without success to have the pre-clearance process removed from the review of a series of election law changes, arguing that the 40-year-old formula was "arbitrary and irrational."

"It will be better without the Department of Justice looking over our shoulder all the time," Florida's top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner said Tuesday.

Detzner, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to oversee the state's election apparatus, said it made no sense for five Florida counties to be subjected to decades-old voting rights data.

Detzner said the state spent as much as $750,000 on legal fees over the past two years, gaining pre-clearance for a series of controversial voting law changes that the Legislature approved and Scott signed in 2011.

Any person or group who thinks a Florida voting law discriminates against racial or language minorities can file a lawsuit in the courts, Detzner said.

Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said the ruling would mean "disastrous chaos for the state of Florida."

"One would have to wonder if the majority in the Supreme Court decision had been paying attention to the state of Florida over the past few years," Macnab said. "On the heels of one of our greatest embarrassments, eight-hour lines, four-day delays in counting votes ... now Florida citizens are left without protection from the clear pattern of partisan manipulation of our voting rights."

The Supreme Court warned of problems with the voting rights law in a similar case heard in 2009. The justices averted a major constitutional ruling at that time, but Congress did nothing to address the issues the court raised.

In the ruling Tuesday, the court said, Congress' "failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare §4(b) unconstitutional. The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance."

But the ruling continued: "Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination" and said Congress "may draft another formula based on current conditions."

The latest decision came in a challenge to the advance approval, or preclearance, requirement, which was brought by Shelby County, Ala., a Birmingham suburb.

The lawsuit acknowledged that the measure's strong medicine was appropriate and necessary to counteract decades of state-sponsored discrimination in voting, despite the Fifteenth Amendment's guarantee of the vote for black Americans.

But it asked whether there was any end in sight for a provision that intrudes on states' rights to conduct elections, an issue the court's conservative justices also explored at the argument in February. It was considered an emergency response when first enacted in 1965.

The county noted that the 25-year extension approved in 2006 would keep some places under Washington's oversight until 2031 and seemed not to account for changes that include the elimination of racial disparity in voter registration and turnout or the existence of allegations of race-based discrimination in voting in areas of the country that are not subject to the provision.

The Obama administration and civil rights groups said there is a continuing need for it and pointed to the Justice Department's efforts to block voter ID laws in South Carolina and Texas last year, as well as a redistricting plan in Texas that a federal court found discriminated against the state's large and growing Hispanic population.

Advance approval was put into the law to give federal officials a potent tool to defeat persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting.

The provision was a huge success because it shifted the legal burden and required governments that were covered to demonstrate that their proposed changes would not discriminate. Congress periodically has renewed it over the years. The most recent extension was overwhelmingly approved by a Republican-led Congress and signed by President George W. Bush.

The requirement currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan. Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaska Natives and Hispanics.

Towns in New Hampshire that had been covered by the law were freed from the advance approval requirement in March. Supporters of the provision pointed to the ability to bail out of the prior approval provision to argue that the law was flexible enough to accommodate change and that the court should leave the Voting Rights Act intact.

On Monday, the Justice Department announced an agreement that would allow Hanover County, Va., to bail out.

Florida's five affected counties were subjected to federal preclearance in 1972 because less than half of the adults in the counties were registered to vote, they had a non-English speaking population of more than 5 percent and election materials were published only in English.

Hillsborough County qualified for preclearance under two different provisions of Section 4.

The first provision, from 1972, measured the number of Spanish-language speakers and compared it to how many were registered to vote. To qualify, Hillsborough had to print its ballots only in English, yet have more than 5 percent of eligible voters who spoke Spanish. The second provision compared the literacy rates of Spanish speakers in Hillsborough to the national average.

Along with having any voting changes precleared, Hillsborough County also had to print ballots in Spanish.

Herald-Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.