The provision at issue in Wednesday's case applies only to specific parts of the country where discriminatory voting procedures were once rampant. It covers all of nine states, mainly in the South, plus parts of seven other states. To head off discriminatory voting procedures before they happen, the law requires covered areas to get approval from federal officials before changes can take place. So, for example, if an Alabama town wants to change polling places, or to change from an elected board to an appointed board, or to annex another part of the county, it has to first get permission from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C.
Congress came up with the formula in 1965 to cover areas of the country that had a history of blatant, even violent, discrimination in voting; but the formula has not been changed since 1975, and it still relies on election data from 1972. That's the crux of the issue before the court now: Whether times have changed so much that Congress, in reauthorizing the law in 2006 without updating the formula, violated the Constitution.
The congressional vote in 2006 was overwhelmingly and astonishingly bipartisan, with the Senate voting unanimously to extend the law and the House voting 390-to-33.Are you so easily astonished? Politically, it's hard to vote against this law, with its dramatic historic momentum. But the Court needs to address problem of treating some states differently from others, relying on a formula that uses statistics from 1972.
Under the law, any jurisdiction with a clean record for 10 years could bail out, and some have done just that. There is also a provision to bail in jurisdictions that can be shown in court to have consistently misbehaved. But basically the law was unchanged — all the areas that had been subject to preclearance before 2006 still were — and Congress simply extended it for another 25 years.