Argued February 27, 2013
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting, "an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution." South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 309. Section 2 of the Act, which bans any "standard, practice, or procedure" that "results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen ... to vote on account of race or color, " 42 U.S.C. §1973(a), applies nationwide, is permanent, and is not at issue in this case. Other sections apply only to some parts of the country. Section 4 of the Act provides the "coverage formula, " defining the "covered jurisdictions" as States or political subdivisions that maintained tests or devices as prerequisites to voting, and had low voter registration or turnout, in the 1960s and early 1970s. §1973b(b). In those covered jurisdictions, §5 of the Act provides that no change in voting procedures can take effect until approved by specified federal authorities in Washington, D. C. §1973c(a). Such approval is known as "preclearance."
The coverage formula and preclearance requirement were initially set to expire after five years, but the Act has been reauthorized several times. In 2006, the Act was reauthorized for an additional 25 years, but the coverage formula was not changed. Coverage still turned on whether a jurisdiction had a voting test in the 1960s or 1970s, and had low voter registration or turnout at that time. Shortly after the 2006 reauthorization, a Texas utility district sought to bail out from the Act's coverage and, in the alternative, challenged the Act's constitutionality. This Court resolved the challenge on statutory grounds, but expressed serious doubts about the Act's continued constitutionality. See Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. Onev. Holder, 557 U.S. 193.
Petitioner Shelby County, in the covered jurisdiction of Alabama, sued the Attorney General in Federal District Court in Washington, D. C, seeking a declaratory judgment that sections 4(b) and 5 are facially unconstitutional, as well as a permanent injunction against their enforcement. The District Court upheld the Act, finding that the evidence before Congress in 2006 was sufficient to justify reauthorizing §5 and continuing §4(b)'s coverage formula. The D. C. Circuit affirmed. After surveying the evidence in the record, that court accepted Congress's conclusion that §2 litigation remained inadequate in the covered jurisdictions to protect the rights of minority voters, that §5 was therefore still necessary, and that the coverage formula continued to pass constitutional muster.
Held: Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional; its formula can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance. Pp. 9—25.
(a) In Northwest Austin, this Court noted that the Voting Rights Act "imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs" and concluded that "a departure from the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty requires a showing that a statute's disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets." 557 U.S., at 203. These basic principles guide review of the question presented here. Pp. 9—17.
(1) State legislation may not contravene federal law. States retain broad autonomy, however, in structuring their governments and pursuing legislative objectives. Indeed, the Tenth Amendment reserves to the States all powers not specifically granted to the Federal Government, including "the power to regulate elections." Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U.S. 452, 461-462. There is also a "fundamental principle of equal sovereignty" among the States, which is highly pertinent in assessing disparate treatment of States. Northwest Austin, supra, at 203.
The Voting Rights Act sharply departs from these basic principles. It requires States to beseech the Federal Government for permission to implement laws that they would otherwise have the right to enact and execute on their own. And despite the tradition of equal sovereignty, the Act applies to only nine States (and additional counties). That is why, in 1966, this Court described the Act as "stringent" and "potent, " Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 308, 315, 337. The Court nonetheless upheld the Act, concluding that such an "uncommon exercise of congressional power" could be justified by "exceptional conditions." Id., at 334. Pp. 9-12.
(2) In 1966, these departures were justified by the "blight of racial discrimination in voting" that had "infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century, " Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 308. At the time, the coverage formula—the means of linking the exercise of the unprecedented authority with the problem that warranted it—made sense. The Act was limited to areas where Congress found "evidence of actual voting discrimination, " and the covered jurisdictions shared two characteristics: "the use of tests and devices for voter registration, and a voting rate in the 1964 presidential election at least 12 points below the national average." Id., at 330. The Court explained that "[t]ests and devices are relevant to voting discrimination because of their long history as a tool for perpetrating the evil; a low voting rate is pertinent for the obvious reason that widespread disenfranchisement must inevitably affect the number of actual voters." Ibid. The Court therefore concluded that "the coverage formula [was] rational in both practice and theory." Ibid. Pp. 12-13.
(3) Nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically. Largely because of the Voting Rights Act, "[v]oter turnout and registration rates" in covered jurisdictions "now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels." Northwest Austin, supra, at 202. The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years. Yet the Act has not eased §5's restrictions or narrowed the scope of §4's coverage formula along the way. Instead those extraordinary and unprecedented features have been reauthorized as if nothing has changed, and they have grown even stronger. Because §5 applies only to those jurisdictions singled out by §4, the Court turns to consider that provision. Pp. 13-17.
(b) Section 4's formula is unconstitutional in light of current conditions. Pp. 17-25.
(1) In 1966, the coverage formula was "rational in both practice and theory." Katzenbach, supra, at 330. It looked to cause (discriminatory tests) and effect (low voter registration and turnout), and tailored the remedy (preclearance) to those jurisdictions exhibiting both. By 2009, however, the "coverage formula raise[d] serious constitutional questions." Northwest Austin, supra, at 204. Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices. The formula captures States by reference to literacy tests and low voter registration and turnout in the 1960s and early 1970s. But such tests have been banned for over 40 years. And voter registration and turnout numbers in covered States have risen dramatically. 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. Today the Nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were. Pp. 17—18.
(2) The Government attempts to defend the formula on grounds that it is "reverse-engineered"—Congress identified the jurisdictions to be covered and then came up with criteria to describe them. Katzenbach did not sanction such an approach, reasoning instead that the coverage formula was rational because the "formula . . . was relevant to the problem." 383 U.S., at 329, 330. The Government has a fallback argument—because the formula was relevant in 1965, its continued use is permissible so long as any discrimination remains in the States identified in 1965. But this does not look to "current political conditions, " Northwest Austin, supra, at 203, instead relying on a comparison between the States in 1965. But history did not end in 1965. In assessing the "current need[ ]" for a preclearance system treating States differently from one another today, history since 1965 cannot be ignored. The Fifteenth Amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future. To serve that purpose, Congress—if it is to divide the States—must identify those jurisdictions to be singled out on a basis that makes sense in light of current conditions. Pp. 18—21.
(3) Respondents also rely heavily on data from the record compiled by Congress before reauthorizing the Act. Regardless of how one looks at that record, no one can fairly say that it shows anything approaching the "pervasive, " "flagrant, " "widespread, " and "rampant" discrimination that clearly distinguished the covered jurisdictions from the rest of the Nation in 1965. Katzenbach, supra, at 308, 315, 331. But a more fundamental problem remains: Congress did not use that record to fashion a coverage formula grounded in current conditions. It instead re-enacted a formula based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relation to the present day. Pp. 21—22.
679 F.3d 848, reversed.
ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed a concurring opinion. GlNSBURG, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and Kagan, JJ., joined.
Roberts, Chief Justice.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem. Section 5 of the Act required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting—a drastic departure from basic principles of federalism. And §4 of the Act applied that requirement only to some States—an equally dramatic departure from the principle that all States enjoy equal sovereignty. This was strong medicine, but Congress determined it was needed to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting, "an insidious and pervasive evil which had been perpetuated in certain parts of our country through unremitting and ingenious defiance of the Constitution." South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301, 309 (1966). As we explained in upholding the law, "exceptional conditions can justify legislative measures not otherwise appropriate." Id., at 334. Reflecting the unprecedented nature of these measures, they were scheduled to expire after five years. See Voting Rights Act of 1965, §4(a), 79 Stat. 438.
Nearly 50 years later, they are still in effect; indeed, they have been made more stringent, and are now scheduled to last until 2031. There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions. By 2009, "the racial gap in voter registration and turnout [was] lower in the States originally covered by §5 than it [was] nationwide." Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Holder, 557 U.S. 193, 203-204 (2009). Since that time, Census Bureau data indicate that African-American voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six States originally covered by §5, with a gap in the sixth State of less than one half of one percent. See Dept. of Commerce, Census Bureau, Reported Voting and Registration, by Sex, Race and Hispanic Origin, for States (Nov. 2012) (Table 4b).
At the same time, voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that. The question is whether the Act's extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements. As we put it a short time ago, "the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs." Northwest Austin, 557 U.S., at 203.
The Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870, in the wake of the Civil War. It provides that "[t]he right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, " and it gives Congress the "power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
"The first century of congressional enforcement of the Amendment, however, can only be regarded as a failure." Id., at 197. In the 1890s, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia began to enact literacy tests for voter registration and to employ other methods designed to prevent African-Americans from voting. Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 310. Congress passed statutes outlawing some of these practices and facilitating litigation against them, but litigation remained slow and expensive, and the States came up with new ways to discriminate as soon as existing ones were struck down. Voter registration of African-Americans barely improved. Id., at 313-314.
Inspired to action by the civil rights movement, Congress responded in 1965 with the Voting Rights Act. Section 2 was enacted to forbid, in all 50 States, any "standard, practice, or procedure . . . imposed or applied ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." 79 Stat. 437. The current version forbids any "standard, practice, or procedure" that "results in a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." 42 U.S.C. §1973(a). Both the Federal Government and individuals have sued to enforce §2, see, e.g., Johnson v. BeGrandy, 512 U.S. 997 (1994), and injunctive relief is available in appropriate cases to block voting laws from going into effect, see 42 U.S.C. §1973j(d). Section 2 is permanent, applies nationwide, and is not at issue in this case.
Other sections targeted only some parts of the country. At the time of the Act's passage, these "covered" jurisdictions were those States or political subdivisions that had maintained a test or device as a prerequisite to voting as of November 1, 1964, and had less than 50 percent voter registration or turnout in the 1964 Presidential election. §4(b), 79 Stat. 438. Such tests or devices included literacy and knowledge tests, good moral character requirements, the need for vouchers from registered voters, and the like. §4(c), id., at 438-439. A covered jurisdiction could "bail out" of coverage if it had not used a test or device in the preceding five years "for the purpose or with the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color." §4(a), id., at 438. In 1965, the covered States included Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia. The additional covered subdivisions included 39 counties in North Carolina and one in Arizona. See 28 CFR pt. 51, App. (2012).
In those jurisdictions, §4 of the Act banned all such tests or devices. §4(a), 79 Stat. 438. Section 5 provided that no change in voting procedures could take effect until it was approved by federal authorities in Washington, D. C.— either the Attorney General or a court of three judges. Id., at 439. A jurisdiction could obtain such "preclearance" only by proving that the change had neither "the purpose [nor] the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color." Ibid.
Sections 4 and 5 were intended to be temporary; they were set to expire after five years. See §4(a), id., at 438; Northwest Austin, supra, at 199. In South Carolina v. Katzenbach, we upheld the 1965 Act against constitutional challenge, explaining that it was justified to address "voting discrimination where it persists on a pervasive scale." 383 U.S., at 308.
In 1970, Congress reauthorized the Act for another five years, and extended the coverage formula in §4(b) to jurisdictions that had a voting test and less than 50 percent voter registration or turnout as of 1968. Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1970, §§3-4, 84 Stat. 315. That swept in several counties in California, New Hampshire, and New York. See 28 CFR pt. 51, App. Congress also extended the ban in §4(a) on tests and devices nationwide. §6, 84 Stat. 315.
In 1975, Congress reauthorized the Act for seven more years, and extended its coverage to jurisdictions that had a voting test and less than 50 percent voter registration or turnout as of 1972. Voting Rights Act Amendments of 1975, §§101, 202, 89 Stat. 400, 401. Congress also amended the definition of "test or device" to include the practice of providing English-only voting materials in places where over five percent of voting-age citizens spoke a single language other than English. §203, id., at 401-402. As a result of these amendments, the States of Alaska, Arizona, and Texas, as well as several counties in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota, became covered jurisdictions. See 28 CFR pt. 51, App. Congress correspondingly amended sections 2 and 5 to forbid voting discrimination on the basis of membership in a language minority group, in addition to discrimination on the basis of race or color. §§203, 206, 89 Stat. 401, 402. Finally, Congress made the nationwide ban on tests and devices permanent. §102, id., at 400.
In 1982, Congress reauthorized the Act for 25 years, but did not alter its coverage formula. See Voting Rights Act Amendments, 96 Stat. 131. Congress did, however, amend the bailout provisions, allowing political subdivisions of covered jurisdictions to bail out. Among other prerequisites for bailout, jurisdictions and their subdivisions must not have used a forbidden test or device, failed to receive preclearance, or lost a §2 suit, in the ten years prior to seeking bailout. §2, id., at 131-133.
We upheld each of these reauthorizations against constitutional challenge. See Georgia v. United States, 411 U.S. 526 (1973); City of Rome v. United States, 446 U.S. 156 (1980); Lopez v. Monterey County, 525 U.S. 266 (1999).
In 2006, Congress again reauthorized the Voting Rights Act for 25 years, again without change to its coverage formula. Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks, and Coretta Scott King Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act, 120 Stat. 577. Congress also amended §5 to prohibit more conduct than before. §5, id., at 580-581; see Reno v. Bossier Parish School Bd., 528 U.S. 320, 341 (2000) (Bossier II); Georgia v. Ashcroft, 539 U.S. 461, 479 (2003). Section 5 now forbids voting changes with "any discriminatory purpose" as well as voting changes that diminish the ability of citizens, on account of race, color, or language minority status, "to elect their preferred candidates of choice." 42 U.S.C. §§1973c(b)-(d).
Shortly after this reauthorization, a Texas utility district brought suit, seeking to bail out from the Act's coverage and, in the alternative, challenging the Act's constitutionality. See Northwest Austin, 557 U.S., at 200-201. A three-judge District Court explained that only a State or political subdivision was eligible to seek bailout under the statute, and concluded that the utility district was not a political subdivision, a term that encompassed only "counties, parishes, and voter-registering subunits." Northwest Austin Municipal Util. Dist. No. One v. Mukasey, 573 F.Supp.2d 221, 232 (DC 2008). The District Court also rejected the constitutional challenge. Id., at 283.
We reversed. We explained that "'normally the Court will not decide a constitutional question if there is some other ground upon which to dispose of the case.'" Northwest Austin, supra, at 205 (quoting Escambia County v. McMillan, 466 U.S. 48, 51 (1984) (per curiam)). Concluding that "underlying constitutional concerns, " among other things, "compelled] a broader reading of the bailout provision, " we construed the statute to allow the utility district to seek bailout. Northwest Austin, 557 U.S., at 207. In doing so we expressed serious doubts about the Act's continued constitutionality.
We explained that §5 "imposes substantial federalism costs" and "differentiates between the States, despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty." Id., at 202, 203 (internal quotation marks omitted). We also noted that "[t]hings have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity. Blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are rare. And minority candidates hold office at unprecedented levels." Id., at 202. Finally, we questioned whether the problems that §5 meant to address were still "concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance." Id., at 203.
Eight Members of the Court subscribed to these views, and the remaining Member would have held the Act unconstitutional. Ultimately, however, the Court's construction of the bailout provision left the constitutional issues for another day.
Shelby County is located in Alabama, a covered jurisdiction. It has not sought bailout, as the Attorney General has recently objected to voting changes proposed from within the county. See App. 87a-92a. Instead, in 2010, the county sued the Attorney General in Federal District Court in Washington, D. C, seeking a declaratory judgment that sections 4(b) and 5 of the Voting Rights Act are facially unconstitutional, as well as a permanent injunction against their enforcement. The District Court ruled against the county and upheld the Act. 811 F.Supp.2d 424, 508 (2011). The court found that the evidence before Congress in 2006 was sufficient to justify reauthorizing §5 and continuing the §4(b) coverage formula.
The Court of Appeals for the D. C. Circuit affirmed. In assessing §5, the D. C. Circuit considered six primary categories of evidence: Attorney General objections to voting changes, Attorney General requests for more information regarding voting changes, successful §2 suits in covered jurisdictions, the dispatching of federal observers to monitor elections in covered jurisdictions, §5 preclearance suits involving covered jurisdictions, and the deterrent effect of §5. See 679 F.3d 848, 862-863 (2012). After extensive analysis of the record, the court accepted Congress's conclusion that §2 litigation remained inadequate in the covered jurisdictions to protect the rights of minority voters, and that §5 was therefore still necessary. Id., at 873.
Turning to §4, the D. C. Circuit noted that the evidence for singling out the covered jurisdictions was "less robust" and that the issue presented "a close question." Id., at 879. But the court looked to data comparing the number of successful §2 suits in the different parts of the country. Coupling that evidence with the deterrent effect of §5, the court concluded that the statute continued "to single out the jurisdictions in which discrimination is concentrated, " and thus held that the coverage formula passed constitutional muster. Id., at 883.
Judge Williams dissented. He found "no positive correlation between inclusion in §4(b)'s coverage formula and low black registration or turnout." Id., at 891. Rather, to the extent there was any correlation, it actually went the other way: "condemnation under §4(b) is a marker of higher black registration and turnout." Ibid, (emphasis added). Judge Williams also found that "[c]overed jurisdictions have far more black officeholders as a proportion of the black population than do uncovered ones." Id., at 892. As to the evidence of successful §2 suits, Judge Williams disaggregated the reported cases by State, and concluded that "[t]he five worst uncovered jurisdictions . . . have worse records than eight of the covered jurisdictions." Id., at 897. He also noted that two covered jurisdictions—Arizona and Alaska—had not had any successful reported §2 suit brought against them during the entire 24 years covered by the data. Ibid. Judge Williams would have held the coverage formula of §4(b) "irrational" and unconstitutional. Id., at 885.
We granted certiorari. 568 U.S. __ (2012).
In Northwest Austin, we stated that "the Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs." 557 U.S., at 203. And we concluded that "a departure from the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty requires a showing that a statute's disparate geographic coverage is sufficiently related to the problem that it targets." Ibid. These basic principles guide our review of the question before us.
The Constitution and laws of the United States are "the supreme Law of the Land." U.S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2. State legislation may not contravene federal law. The Federal Government does not, however, have a general right to review and veto state enactments before they go into effect. A proposal to grant such authority to "negative" state laws was considered at the Constitutional Convention, but rejected in favor of allowing state laws to take effect, subject to later challenge under the Supremacy Clause. See 1 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, pp. 21, 164-168 (M. Farrand ed. 1911); 2 id., at 27-29, 390-392.
Outside the strictures of the Supremacy Clause, States retain broad autonomy in structuring their governments and pursuing legislative objectives. Indeed, the Constitution provides that all powers not specifically granted to the Federal Government are reserved to the States or citizens. Amdt. 10. This "allocation of powers in our federal system preserves the integrity, dignity, and residual sovereignty of the States." Bond v. United States, 564 U.S. __, __ (2011) (slip op., at 9). But the federal balance "is not just an end in itself: Rather, federalism secures to citizens the liberties that derive from the diffusion of sovereign power." Ibid, (internal quotation marks omitted).
More specifically, "'the Framers of the Constitution intended the States to keep for themselves, as provided in the Tenth Amendment, the power to regulate elections.'" Gregory v. Ashcroft, 501 U.S. 452, 461-462 (1991) (quoting Sugarman v. Dougall, 413 U.S. 634, 647 (1973); some internal quotation marks omitted). Of course, the Federal Government retains significant control over federal elections. For instance, the Constitution authorizes Congress to establish the time and manner for electing Senators and Representatives. Art. I, §4, cl. 1; see also Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Ariz., Inc., ante, at 4-6. But States have "broad powers to determine the conditions under which the right of suffrage may be exercised." Carrington v. Rash, 380 U.S. 89, 91 (1965) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Arizona, ante, at 13-15. And "[e]ach State has the power to prescribe the qualifications of its officers and the manner in which they shall be chosen." Boyd v. Nebraska ex rel. Thayer, 143 U.S. 135, 161 (1892). Drawing lines for congressional districts is likewise "primarily the duty and responsibility of the State." Perry v. Perez, 565 U.S. __, __ (2012) (per curiam) (slip op., at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Not only do States retain sovereignty under the Constitution, there is also a "fundamental principle of equal sovereignty" among the States. Northwest Austin, supra, at 203 (citing United States v. Louisiana, 363 U.S. 1, 16 (1960); Lessee of Pollard v. Hagan, 3 How. 212, 223 (1845); and Texas v. White, 7 Wall. 700, 725-726 (1869); emphasis added). Over a hundred years ago, this Court explained that our Nation "was and is a union of States, equal in power, dignity and authority." Coyle v. Smith, 221 U.S. 559, 567 (1911). Indeed, "the constitutional equality of the States is essential to the harmonious operation of the scheme upon which the Republic was organized." Id., at 580. Coyle concerned the admission of new States, and Katzenbach rejected the notion that the principle operated as a bar on differential treatment outside that context. 383 U.S., at 328-329. At the same time, as we made clear in Northwest Austin, the fundamental principle of equal sovereignty remains highly pertinent in assessing subsequent disparate treatment of States. 557 U.S., at 203.
The Voting Rights Act sharply departs from these basic principles. It suspends "all changes to state election law— however innocuous—until they have been precleared by federal authorities in Washington, D. C." Id., at 202. States must beseech the Federal Government for permission to implement laws that they would otherwise have the right to enact and execute on their own, subject of course to any injunction in a §2 action. The Attorney General has 60 days to object to a preclearance request, longer if he requests more information. See 28 CFR §§51.9, 51.37. If a State seeks preclearance from a three-judge court, the process can take years.
And despite the tradition of equal sovereignty, the Act applies to only nine States (and several additional counties). While one State waits months or years and expends funds to implement a validly enacted law, its neighbor can typically put the same law into effect immediately, through the normal legislative process. Even if a noncovered jurisdiction is sued, there are important differences between those proceedings and preclearance proceedings; the preclearance proceeding "not only switches the burden of proof to the supplicant jurisdiction, but also applies substantive standards quite different from those governing the rest of the nation." 679 F.3d, at 884 (Williams, J., dissenting) (case below).
All this explains why, when we first upheld the Act in 1966, we described it as "stringent" and "potent." Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 308, 315, 337. We recognized that it "may have been an uncommon exercise of congressional power, " but concluded that "legislative measures not otherwise appropriate" could be justified by "exceptional conditions." Id., at 334. We have since noted that the Act "authorizes federal intrusion into sensitive areas of state and local policymaking, " Lopez, 525 U.S., at 282, and represents an "extraordinary departure from the traditional course of relations between the States and the Federal Government, " Presley v. Etowah County Comm'n, 502 U.S. 491, 500-501 (1992). As we reiterated in Northwest Austin, the Act constitutes "extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system." 557 U.S., at 211.
In 1966, we found these departures from the basic features of our system of government justified. The "blight of racial discrimination in voting" had "infected the electoral process in parts of our country for nearly a century." Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 308. Several States had enacted a variety of requirements and tests "specifically designed to prevent" African-Americans from voting. Id., at 310. Case-by-case litigation had proved inadequate to prevent such racial discrimination in voting, in part because States "merely switched to discriminatory devices not covered by the federal decrees, " "enacted difficult new tests, " or simply "defied and evaded court orders." Id., at 314. Shortly before enactment of the Voting Rights Act, only 19.4 percent of African-Americans of voting age were registered to vote in Alabama, only 31.8 percent in Louisiana, and only 6.4 percent in Mississippi. Id., at 313. Those figures were roughly 50 percentage points or more below the figures for whites. Ibid.
In short, we concluded that "[u]nder the compulsion of these unique circumstances, Congress responded in a permissibly decisive manner." Id., at 334, 335. We also noted then and have emphasized since that this extraordinary legislation was intended to be temporary, set to expire after five years. Id., at 333; Northwest Austin, supra, at 199.
At the time, the coverage formula—the means of linking the exercise of the unprecedented authority with the problem that warranted it—made sense. We found that "Congress chose to limit its attention to the geographic areas where immediate action seemed necessary." Katzenbach, 383 U.S., at 328. The areas where Congress found "evidence of actual voting discrimination" shared two characteristics: "the use of tests and devices for voter registration, and a voting rate in the 1964 presidential election at least 12 points below the national average." Id., at 330. We explained that "[t]ests and devices are relevant to voting discrimination because of their long history as a tool for perpetrating the evil; a low voting rate is pertinent for the obvious reason that widespread disenfranchisement must inevitably affect the number of actual voters." Ibid. We therefore concluded that "the coverage formula [was] rational in both practice and theory." Ibid. It accurately reflected those jurisdictions uniquely characterized by voting discrimination "on a pervasive scale, " linking coverage to the devices used to ...