Activists and organizers said that they would urge Congress and the president to act quickly after the Supreme Court struck down the formula in the Voting Rights Act that determined which jurisdictions were covered, presenting lawmakers with a challenge some watchers said they may not be ready for.
The 5 to 4 vote struck down a section of the historic civil rights legislation that determined which states, many of them with histories of racial discrimination, needed approval from the Department of Justice before changing voting laws.
President Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” by the court’s decision in a statement released on Tuesday.
“I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls,” Obama said. “My administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.”
NBC News Chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd said on MSNBC that Congress is not “mature enough” to reach a speedy political solution.
“This is not a welcome decision, by any means,” a senior White House official said in reaction to the decision. “But there is a theoretical path for Congress to update the statute in ways that would make it constitutional.”
“As a practical matter, that may be difficult to do given political dynamics,” the official told NBC News.
Removing the map determining which jurisdictions need pre-clearance of new voting laws rendered the Voting Rights Act effectively toothless, law professor Kenji Yoshino said on MSNBC. While lawmakers could draw up a new map, “it’s not clear that this Congress is going to have the will to do that,” he said.
“I think what the court did today is stab the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its very heart,” Representative John Lewis said. “It took us almost 100 years to get us where we are today, so will it take us another 100 years to fix it? I call upon my colleagues in the Congress to get it right, to fix it.”
Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, said that he looked forward to working with members of Congress after the court’s ruling.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand called the Supreme Court’s ruling a “significant setback that will put Congress to the test of whether we can move quickly and without partisanship.”
Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan called the court’s ruling a “win for fairness,” saying that he hoped it would “end the practice of treating states differently and recognizes that we live in 2013, not the 1960s.”
“This is not an issue just for civil rights advocates, this is not an issue just for African Americans or Latinos, this is not just an issue for those in the South,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, director-counsel of the NAACP’s legal defense and educational fund. “This is the American we have all come to expect and that we have all come to enjoy and be proud of, and the question for us is are we willing to fight for it.”
“We will not sit down, we will not be silent, we will not accept the evisceration of our rights, we will fight every step of the way to make sure that voting rights are available to every single American,” said Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“This is devastating,” civil rights activist Rev. Al Sharpton said on MSNBC. “I think what we must do is really put pressure on Congress now to deal with this.”
“This is a devastating blow to those of us that need that protection, especially given the voter suppression schemes that we saw in 2012,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton said that voting rights were among the most important issues when Dr. Martin Luther King pushed for civil rights for black Americans in the 1960s.
”They just canceled the dream,” Sharpton said, “and the children of the dream are not going to sit by and allow that to happen.”
Civil rights litigator Judith Browne Dianis said that while the face of racial discrimination in voting has changed over the years, there are still many states that have “tried to roll back voting rights by making it harder to vote for people of color.”
“We know that discrimination still exists in those states. We know that discrimination also exists in other states,” Dianis said. “We’re going to have to set the record straight.”
“We witnessed in the last election cycle numerous states, an orchestrated effort, forty states in fact, where legislation was introduced to suppress the vote,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.
“I think this is another opportunity from both sides of the Congress to demonstrate that this is not going to get caught up in partisan wrangling, obfuscation, and obstruction,” Morial said.
Rick Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University, said that politicians concerned about voting rights might see leadership from the White House in the aftermath of the landmark ruling.
“I think there’s probably no body in political office today who understands these issues better than President Barack Obama,” Pildes said.
NBC News’ Peter Alexander contributed to this report.