(CNN) – In asking Congress to redraw the map of places where the right to vote may be at risk, the Supreme Court tossed the ball to an institution suffering record-low approval ratings whose ability to pass any meaningful legislation remains in doubt.
On Tuesday, the high court effectively invalidated a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that gives the federal government oversight of states and localities with a history of voter discrimination. The ruling justices said Congress must re-determine how places are put on the list using updated data – a tough proposition for a body already mired in partisan gridlock over budgets and immigration.
The states and localities included on the list must "pre-clear" any changes to their voting laws with federal authorities, including any changes to district lines. Lawmakers last reauthorized that requirement in 2006 without making any major changes to the method of how a place is included on the list. In 2009, after a Supreme Court ruling raising questions about the constitutionality of the act, Congress failed to pass any changes to the formula.
"Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 5-4 majority opinion. "Its failure leaves us today with no choice but to declare Section 4 unconstitutional. The formula in that section can no longer be used as a basis for subjecting jurisdictions to preclearance."
Currently, Republicans – many of whom have expressed opposition to the pre-clearance provision in the Voting Rights Act - control the House of Representatives. With the formula deemed unconstitutional by the court, it appears unlikely the House would pass any measure that re-allows the federal government to oversee local voting laws. House Republicans leaders did not immediately issue reactions to the court's ruling.
Democrats, however, will push for some new determination to be approved by Congress, since they say many laws being enacted in states covered by the Voting Rights Act restrict the right of minorities to cast ballots. President Barack Obama, saying he was "deeply disappointed" in the ruling, wrote in a statement he was "calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls."
Sen. Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote in a statement he would "take immediate action to ensure that we will have a strong and reconstituted Voting Rights Act that protects against racial discrimination in voting."
But without control of the lower chamber, even liberals expressed doubt that any new rules would be forthcoming.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer called on leaders of both parties in the House and Senate to come together on legislation to address the issues raised in the Supreme Court's ruling, but acknowledged "Congress has not been very able to act in a bipartisan fashion." The number two Democrat said the last time this issue came up in 2006 both parties were able to come together and "I hope we can get back to that again."
Stephanie Taylor, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, was less optimistic.
"A dysfunctional Congress will not provide the protections necessary to make sure all people can vote," Taylor said. "The Roberts Court continues to ignore common-sense protections to make sure our democracy is owned by the people, not the powerful. History will not look kindly on John Roberts."
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, remained more optimistic, calling on Congress to act in protecting voting rights.
"We believe that Congress is in a better position than the Supreme Court to determine how voting discrimination plays out in this country," she said at the court following the reading of the ruling.
"We are disappointed, but now the ball is in Congress' court. We should be turning our attention and our camera across the street because it is now Congress' time to do what it has done so many times in the past – come together, Republicans and Democrats, to reauthorize, to enact, or to amend the Voting Rights Act to ensure the protection of minority voters in this country."
Activists, including Rev. Al Sharpton, said they would begin pressing lawmakers to pass a new formula for determining which places need extra oversight of their voting laws.
"This is a devastating blow to Americans, particularly African-Americans, who are now at the mercy of state governments," Sharpton wrote in a statement. "Given last year's attempts by states to change voting rules, it is absurd to say that we do not need these protections. National Action Network and I will mobilize nationwide to put the pressure on Congress to come (up) with stricter voter protection laws."
CNN Senior Congressional Producer Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.