UPDATE, July 25, 2013 (This replaces two earlier updates): On Tuesday, June 25, the Supreme Court dismantled a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. A month later, it was widely reported that the Justice Department would take fresh legal action in a string of voting rights cases, signaling its willingness to aggressively police voting rules to prevent discrimination. It is apparently starting by joining a redistricting case in Texas.

For line-by-line analysis of the Court’s June decision, see the annotated version on the Times website. The paper is also live blogging analysis of the ruling and (to some degree) its implications. Rick Hasen’s Election Law blog, meanwhile, has an excellent roundup of ruling coverage.

The primer below was originally published June 18, 2013, with the headline: The voting wars and the Supreme Court: a pre-ruling primer.

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Once again, the Supreme Court has found itself on the front lines of the voting wars.
On Monday, the court struck down an Arizona law requiring residents to show proof of citizenship before registering to vote. And it’s about to weigh in on a far more consequential question: Whether to scrap a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, a 1965 law designed to root out tactics that stifle voting by blacks and other minority groups.

Specifically, the court will rule on a challenge to a provision, known as Section 5, which allows the Justice Department to pre-emptively block discriminatory voting practices in states and municipalities with a history of hindering minority voters. Almost everyone agrees that Section 5—which civil rights activists have dubbed the Act’s “heart” and “hammer”—has played an essential role in bringing blacks and other minorities into the political process, though critics argue the extraordinary federal meddling in state affairs is no longer justified.

If the court strikes down Section 5 it could upend the mechanics of our political system, altering everything from redistricting battles and electoral law to the tone of partisan squabbles. Unfortunately, these weighty implications rarely come through in the reporting, which so far has tended toward horse-race-style coverage—journalists parsing the Supreme Court justices’ comments or trying to game out how they might vote. Very few reporters have delved into the key questions the case raises: Is Section 5 still needed, or is it a relic that unfairly burdens certain states and municipalities based on old misdeeds? Will striking it down roll back the gains that blacks and other minority groups have made? Could it have unexpected consequences, such as easing partisan gridlock?

There are, however, some notable journalistic exceptions. In anticipation of the upcoming ruling, CJR has rounded up some of the best reporting on this case, known as Shelby County v. Holder, as well as resources for reporters—or anyone else—trying to wrap their mind around its significance.


The Big Picture
ProPublica has put out some excellent explainers on the Shelby County case. The most recent, published in February, covers everything from Section 5’s origin and evolution, to how jurisdictions with clean recent track records can opt out. Reporter Suevon Lee also gives a good overview of the provision’s reach; As she explains, it covers both “large-scale changes like redistricting and voter ID” and “small things like changing a polling place or precinct” in covered jurisdictions—among them nine states (Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, and Alaska) and parts of eight others. Lee also notes:

Just this past year, the provision was the reason federal judges blocked voter ID laws in both Texas and South Carolina, voided new district maps in Texas and prevented early voting reduction of hours in parts of Florida, citing a potential adverse effect on minority voters.

For a more in-depth look at the history and impact of the Voting Rights Act, check out Bending Toward Justice: The Voting Rights Act and the Transformation of American Democracy by historian Gary May.

The Brennan Center for Justice has also assembled an eye-opening report on the potential implications of Section 5 being struck down.

The Close-up
In February, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a groundbreaking series on the Voting Rights Act and the potential fallout of Section 5’s demise. Part one explores these themes through the lens of a single Georgia county.

Mariah Blake writes for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. She is based in Washington, DC, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Salon, The Washington Monthly, and CJR, among other publications.