Now, however, the Supreme Court majority said there’d been enough progress over the last half-century that the key section of the law was outdated.
“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote. “Voter registration and turnout data in the covered states have risen dramatically in the years since.”
In 1965, for example, just 27 percent of African-American adults in Georgia were registered to vote, compared with 62 percent of white adults. By 2004, African-American voter registration in Georgia had jumped to 64 percent, exceeding white registration. Other Southern states have shown similar trends.
“Voting discrimination still exists, no one doubts that,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg countered. “But the court today terminates the remedy that proved to be best suited to block that discrimination.”
Any fallout might not be felt in coming elections. Because congressional district lines were redrawn after the 2010 census so that most districts are safely Democratic or Republican, the court rulings seem unlikely to spark big changes, at least right now.
“If I were a Republican strategist, I’d think this decision buys me a few years,” said Richard Parker, a public policy and politics expert at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. But long term, he warned, it could cement the kind of image that might stymie the party’s efforts at inclusiveness.
A party study earlier this year ordered by Chairman Reince Priebus urged strong steps to be more inclusive. Priebus says the party is taking such steps, notably a new grass-roots effort that features Republicans trying to familiarize new voters with the party.
The same-sex marriage issue might follow a different scenario. Public opinion is still evolving, but the issue remains politically volatile.
In Virginia, for instance, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, has been active in opposing same-sex marriage and in efforts to curb gay rights. Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe praised the Supreme Court ruling.
In Congress, battle lines formed quickly. A “Respect for Marriage Act,” which would repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, got 161 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives and 41 in the Senate. On the other side is the conservative bandwagon, revving up fast. The Faith & Freedom Coalition, for instance, is circulating an online petition that declares, “We believe the definition of ‘marriage’ to be the union of one man and one woman.”
Over the last 40 years, politics often has been shaken by single-issue voters, passionate constituencies with causes that have learned how to organize and have a disproportionate effect on elections.
Five years after the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, which established abortion rights, anti-abortion activists scored stunning upsets in several congressional races. By 1980, social conservatives with other causes had joined them to form a movement that continues to affect American politics.
Today, turning out the religious community might make a difference in more conservative states with too-close-to-call Senate races, such as Alaska, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana and North Carolina. Then again, outrage over the Voting Rights Act might spark strong minority turnout in Southern states.
This much is clear, Kohut said, about all of this week’s decisions: “These aren’t issues that are going to bring Republicans and Democrats together.”