BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) - Civil rights groups across the South expressed bitter disappointment on Tuesday over a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and urged Congress to pass a new law to prevent possible voter discrimination.
“The Supreme Court has given license and permission to go full speed ahead in the prevention of voter registration of African-Americans and Latinos,” said Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries in Alabama.
Carroll Rhodes, an attorney for the Mississippi chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or NAACP, said the group was “devastated” by the ruling, one of the most important on civil rights in years.
Despite undeniable progress on civil rights over the last 50 years and Barack Obama’s election as the first African American president, race and access to voting remain a contentious issue in modern-day U.S. politics, and nowhere more so than in the South.
“Contrary to the view of the U.S. Supreme Court, we are not beyond racism in America and efforts to suppress the vote,” said Howard Simon, executive director of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The decision by the court ended the enforcement of a formula that determined which states and localities, many of them in the South, need federal government approval to make any change to their voting laws.
The ruling cuts back legal protections that have benefited minority voters since they were first put in place at the height of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s. It also shifts the burden to a politically divided Congress to draw up any new law outlining which, if any, geographic areas might require federal oversight.
The decision could spur rights groups to be more active in scrutinizing election law changes.
“The burden will fall more on civil rights organizations rather than the federal government,” Simon said. “We are going to have to roll up our sleeves and do harder work using other tools to defend the right to vote.”
He noted that the ruling did not overturn the Voting Rights Act entirely, and that other sections of the act could still be used to defend voters, as well as anti-race discrimination clauses in state constitutions.
The ruling had immediate impact in Texas. The Supreme Court’s decision voiding federal approval of election law changes means a controversial voter identification law can now move forward.
The law will require voters to show government-issued photo identification before they cast ballots. Last year, a federal court blocked the measure, saying it would likely curtail the ability of minorities to vote.
Some rights activists expressed concern that with federal monitoring now ending, some states may not have the policies in place to protect minority voters.
Others pointed to a slew of legal battles, many of them in southern states ahead of last year’s presidential election, over voter ID and voter registration laws and efforts to purge voter lists as proof that more needs to be done to ensure voting is fair.
Last year, the ACLU filed a series of lawsuits challenging Florida’s voter purge and a newly passed state law that reduced the number of early voting days, both of which were vigorously pursued under Republican Governor Rick Scott.
Critics called Florida’s efforts part of a long-running Republican attempt to deter minorities and the poor, who tend to vote Democratic, from casting ballots, a charge Scott denied.
Across the South, broader reaction to the ruling appeared to fall largely along partisan lines.
Republican attorneys general in several states praised the court’s ruling, with some saying it represented the end of federal government intrusion on what they view as a state issue.
“This is a victory for all voters, as all states can now act equally without some having to ask for permission or being required to jump through the extraordinary hoops demanded by federal bureaucracy,” said Alan Wilson, South Carolina’s attorney general.
Jotaka Eaddy, senior director for voting rights at the NAACP’s Washington office, said the group would turn its efforts to Congress to persuade lawmakers to pass a new law to update the provision that was struck down.
“Today’s decision puts Congress in the center of the battle for voting rights in our nation,” she said. “It is time for all Americans to take this fight to Congress and ensure that every vote is protected.”
Additional reporting by David Beasley in Atlanta; Emily Le Coz in Jackson, Mississippi; Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; and David Adams in Miami; Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Mary Milliken and Lisa Shumaker