The heart of the Voting Rights Act ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court

The problem is that the racism the Voting Rights Act attempts to counteract never really went away.

This August it will be exactly fifty years since Martin Luther King Jr stood and told over quarter of a million people: “I have a dream.” It was one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement, and it led to the Voting Rights Act just two years later which outlawed discriminatory voting practices in the historically racist south.

The Supreme Court in America just celebrated this anniversary by striking down one of the central provisions of that Act, at a time when American civil liberties are already being infringed-upon by an invasive surveillance state – and at a time, moreover, when the case of the shooting of a young black teenager, Trayvon Martin, has brought racial tensions in the South to the fore again too. It's not been a good year for the "land of the free".

In a devastating ruling, the Supreme Court of the United States yesterday voted as section four of the Act, which gives federal oversight to the voting procedures of certain southern states, unconstitutional. Changes in these procedures will now have to be challenged after the fact in court – an expensive and difficult process.

“During [the last 40 years], largely because of the Voting Rights Act, voting tests were abolished, disparities in voter registration and turnout due to race were erased, and African-Americans attained political office in record numbers,” said Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion to the court. “And yet the coverage formula that Congress reauthorised in 2006 ignores these developments, keeping the focus on decades-old data relevant to decades-old problems, rather than current data reflecting current needs.”

Racism in the US, needless to say, is not as quick to die as Roberts seems to think. Martin Luther King's speech was itself given on an other auspicious anniversary, that of the Emancipation Proclamation outlawing slavery in the US. That historic document, signed 150 years ago, ended slavery, but began a century-long epoch of discrimination. King fought against it, and the Voting Rights Act was a significant victory, but the racism the Act attempts to counteract never really went away.

Roberts seems to genuinely believe that the fight against institutional racism has been won. Even if that were true, which it is not, the Act's real strength was its protection not just against overtly racist practices but against economic- and literacy-based voting tests that de facto discriminate against minorities or lower economic groups. These protections are still badly needed. Voter ID laws, which discriminate against minority groups less likely to have ID, have already been imposed by 30 states. Congressional districts are already gerrymandered to breaking-point to give disproportionate representation to wealthy, white Republicans and last year's election campaign was marred by dirty tactics like restricting early voting hours in counties with large black communities. If anything, the Voting Rights Act needed to be expanded, not gutted.

The Court's decision now puts the onus on Congress to justify federal oversight under the Act, which effectively rules it out – Congress is gridlocked and dominated by Republicans with an eye on the 2016 election, for whom this ruling is a godsend.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a former civil rights lawyer, wrote a damning dissenting opinion. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in [the Court's] utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” she wrote. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed.”

“With that belief,” she concluded, “…history repeats itself.”

The decision has had immediate practical consequences. Changes in voting procedures that had required advance federal approval, including voter identification laws and restrictions on early voting, will now be subject only to after-the-fact litigation. Texas, one of the states now free to impose whatever voting restrictions it may choose, did not seem to even pause for breath. “With today’s decision the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately,” Texas’ Republican attorney general Greg Abbott said today with relish, making the land of the free a little less free with every word.

Appalled, I mentioned the case to my room-mate here in New York this afternoon.

“Welcome to America,” she said.

Alabama residents outside the Supreme Court. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage