MERCED — A divided Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a centerpiece of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in a marked victory for Southern states and conservatives that also poses a steep challenge for Congress.
In one of the term's most highly anticipated rulings, the court ruled 5-4 that part of the 1965 law must be updated to account for how times have changed since Congress first wrote the groundbreaking voting rights legislation.
Up until last year, Merced County was subject to federal oversight because of the criteria set by the act.
Federal officials agreed in July to free the county from the special scrutiny, which had been in place for more than 35 years. The decision essentially meant Merced County and its political jurisdictions would no longer require federal "preclearance" to take routine actions such as changing voting procedures or district lines.
Merced County officials maintained they undeservedly fell under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 1975 because of the military population at Castle Air Force Base. That population was treated as eligible to vote in Merced County, but many voted absentee in their home counties.
One of the criteria to avoid Section 5 requires that at least 50 percent of eligible voters be registered to vote. Many people stationed at the base were registered in their home counties but were counted in the census total, putting Merced County at a little less than the cutoff at 49.6 percent.
Over the past decade, Merced County has spent about $1 million in legal costs and fees related to Section 5, according to county officials.
Merced County wasn't alone. Kings, Yuba and Monterey counties were all subject, since 1974, to section of the federal Voting Rights Act that required preclearance of any election-related changes before voting takes place.
The court's decision relieves those counties of the longstanding requirement to report to the federal Department of Justice the closure of a polling place, the location of redrawn district lines and similar details, Kings County Registrar of Voters Ken Baird said.