Locals React to Supreme Court Decision on Voting Rights

Clinton Hill resident Jesse Coleman, who was a part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said he's against the Supreme Court's decision on the Voting Rights Act.
Clinton Hill resident Jesse Coleman, who was a part of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said he’s against the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act. (Photo by Emily Field)

The Supreme Court of the United States’ decision to strike down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on Tuesday drew mixed reactions around the neighborhood.

“I don’t think it’s a good thing,” said Clinton Hill resident Jesse Coleman, 78. Coleman said he had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the South “from the time I was 15 practically until the day he was shot.”

“Some states still try to block you from voting,” Coleman said.

Under the Voting Rights Act, states and counties with a history of voter discrimination were required to submit any changes in voting procedures the federal Justice Department for approval. While most of these states are in the South, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx were also had to get preclearance from the Justice Department to change voting procedures, such as moving a polling place or redrawing an electoral district.

In a 5-to-4 vote, the court ruled that a provision of the law, Section 4, which determined the areas under federal oversight, is unconstitutional.

“In 1965, the States could be divided into those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction,” wrote Chief Justice Roberts for the majority opinion. “Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

“You can’t think what’s in the past, that’s what’s in the present,” said Fort Greene resident Earl Hamilton, 67. “In certain states, it could be good,” he said.

The coverage formula used in the Voting Rights Act had not been updated since 1975. Congress has reauthorized the act several times since 1965, most recently in 2006 with broad bipartisan backing.

Elections in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx were also under federal oversight.

Since 1974, the Justice Department objected 13 times to changes in New York elections for being discriminatory. In 2001, one week before the New York City primary elections, the Board of Elections had planned to close a busy poll site in Manhattan’s Chinatown without announcing it in Chinese-language newspapers. The Department of Justice told the board that the change could not take place under the Voting Rights Act, and the original polling site was used on Election Day.

Now that Section 4 has been struck down, it will be up to Congress to come up with a new coverage formula.

Some locals were doubtful that Congress was up to the job.

“Once it gets kicked down to Congress, nothing’s going to happen,” said Joe Bruno, 42, who works in Clinton Hill. “It’s only going to make it harder for minorities when Republicans want to push their agenda.”

“Today, the Supreme Court dealt a devastating blow to civil rights in our country. The decision to allow a right-wing Tea-Party dominated Congress to determine the voting rights that generations have secured with blood and sacrifice is simply unjust and unacceptable,” said city Council Member Letitia James in a statement.

But other reactions around the neighborhood were more mixed.

“That could be a good thing, instead of going through federal laws,” said Fort Greene resident Tara Jones, 53.

“Honestly, I don’t think it makes a difference,” said Seven Laracuente, 37. “I think that people rely too much on the government for making a stand on what’s write. I don’t think the government always has people’s best interest in mind.”

“I’ve only heard little bits and pieces,” said Serene Holland, 35, who works in Fort Greene Park.  “But Martin Luther King didn’t fight all of that hard time for them to go and change it like that.”