What the Supreme Court's Voting Rights Act Decision Means

PHOTO: Residents from Alabama stand in line outside the U.S. Supreme Court for a chance to hear oral arguments February 27, 2013 in Washington, DC, for Shelby County v. Holder, a legal challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

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The Supreme Court dealt a huge blow Tuesday morning to supporters of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark 1965 law aimed at protecting minority voters from discrimination at the polls.

The court ruled that the formula used to decide which states and jurisdictions are subject to the law's requirements is outdated and must be updated.

So what does this really mean?

While the high court praised the core aim of the act - requiring places with a history of discrimination to get approval before they change their voting laws - its ruling made doing so much more difficult.

That's because Republicans and Democrats would now have to come together in Congress to agree on a new formula for how those discriminatory states and jurisdictions are selected. The formula that the court deemed unconstitutional hadn't been updated since the '60s, it's true - but the likelihood of lawmakers working together seems tenuous at best, especially considering many Republicans have attacked the act as unnecessary.

For the time being, the decision means that the "preclearance" protection for minority voters - that groups like the National Council of La Raza and the NAACP say is necessary - is no longer in place.

The justices said they continue to support a ban on racial discrimination in voting, but that the process used to determine where that exists - the so-called preclearance process spelled out in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act - was too outdated.

The preclearance process was originally put in place during the civil rights movement to protect African-American voters who faced discrimination at the polls in many white-dominated states.

The plaintiff in this Supreme Court case - Shelby County, Alabama - argued that many of the states and counties subject to Section 5 have improved poll access to minority voters since the '60s and now actually have higher African-American voting rates than states in the North.

But Latino organizations have said the act is critical to ensuring that a relatively new group of voters is protected: Hispanics.

They say the increasing number of voting-eligible Hispanics has prompted discrimination in the form of voter ID laws and redistricting plans that disadvantaged minorities, especially Latinos, in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere in just in the past several years.

"Experiences in the last two years, with regard to redistricting and preparations for the 2012 election, demonstrate that discrimination against Latinos is alive and well in the United States," Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said in a February interview with Fusion, an ABC-Univision joint venture.

"The case for why it's necessary was made so blatant in the past two years, that I would say the Supreme Court would have to be truly blind to justice here if it decides that Section 5 is no longer required," Vargas added.

In a perfect world, updating the Voting Rights Act's formula could help ensure Latino voters receive protection in places where they say they've faced discrimination in the form of English-only ballots and a proliferation of voter ID laws.

But we don't live in a perfect world. While the act lives on technically, it won't do Latinos and other minority voters any good unless lawmakers choose to work together to fix the formula it hinges on.

Texas Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D) echoed Vargas' sentiment in a late February interview with Fusion, saying that the act was well-vetted before it was reauthorized for 25 years by Congress in 2006. But Republicans, who performed poorly with Latino voters in the most recent election cycle, appear unmotivated to update the formula and save the act..

"Those who are tired of losing are the ones who want to get rid of the Voting Rights Act," Fischer said.

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