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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.