By Mark K. Matthews and Scott Powers, Orlando Sentinel
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday nixed a key provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act, clearing the way for election officials in Florida and 14 other states to change their voting rules without automatic review by federal authorities.
In ruling for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the long-standing civil-rights law relied on outdated data in forcing all or part of 15 states — including five counties in Florida — to clear changes with the courts or U.S. Department of Justice.
One immediate effect for Florida could be the resumption of a controversial voter-rolls check that state elections officials began last year but halted in the fall. The state wants to use federal data to identify noncitizens illegally registered to vote.
In justifying the decision, Roberts wrote that the requirement for federal oversight of some states and counties was based on "decades-old data and eradicated practices," such as literacy tests. He cited improved rates of black-voter turnout in the South as a sign of progress.
Though the high court struck down the old standards, it left the door open for federal officials to regain their supervisory role. But that would require Congress to draw up a new set of guidelines to determine which states would face oversight — a steep climb given the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill today.
Even so, President Barack Obama — echoing the frustration expressed Tuesday by voter-protection groups nationwide — vowed to keep fighting for the Voting Rights Act, which was first signed into law in 1965 in the aftermath of violent attacks against civil-rights protesters.
"While today's decision is a setback, it doesn't represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination," he said in a statement. "I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls."
In the meantime, the states, counties and townships previously restricted by the Voting Rights Act now are free to change election rules without prior federal review, including revisions to the number of early-voting days.
Though only five Florida counties — Hillsborough, Collier, Monroe, Hendry and Hardee — have been under federal supervision, the law has been at the center of recent fights over statewide changes to election protocol.
Civil-rights groups used the law to as part of their challenge to efforts by Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 to cut the number of early-voting days from 14 to eight and impose tougher restrictions on third-party groups that register voters — decisions later reversed by either the courts or the Legislature.
A less robust Voting Rights Act could make it harder to fight these efforts in the future, they said.
"This governor and this Legislature have been a walking advertisement as to why federal oversight is needed," said Howard Simon, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
As an example, ACLU officials cited a recent push by the Scott administration to purge the voter rolls of noncitizens.
The campaign — which at one point threatened the voting rights of two World War II veterans — was put on hold by state officials until the Supreme Court issued a ruling on the Voting Rights Act.
Florida officials had started systematically reviewing voter registrations with a federal database at the Department of Homeland Security to try to identify noncitizens illegally registered to vote.
That effort identified 207 possible noncitizens who had registered to vote last year, though records showed only 39 of them had ever actually voted. Florida has nearly 12 million voters.
The plan was quickly challenged in another federal lawsuit, brought against Florida by the voting-rights-advocacy group Mi Familia, which contended Florida needed to get preclearance to run those checks for voters in the five counties covered under the Voting Rights Act.
Rather than fight the Mi Familia lawsuit, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner agreed to a court stay that put the state's entire voter check on hold to see what the Supreme Court would do.
Now the secretary of state intends to resume those efforts "and anticipates doing so with plenty of time to prepare for the next general election," Chris Cate, spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office, said in a statement.
"Florida remains very supportive of the Voting Rights Act, as we were before this ruling, but we are pleased that all of Florida's 67 counties can now implement election law at the same time," Cate said.
Scott echoed that sentiment Tuesday at a news briefing.
"Anytime that we have the opportunity to make our own decisions, I think that's great for our state," he said.