Bill Would Revive the Voting Rights Act

Mike Lillis, The Hill, January 16, 2014

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday that would restore the voting protections shot down by the Supreme Court last year.

Sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the proposal attempts to ensure voters’ rights by requiring certain regions with a recent history of racial discrimination to secure federal approval before changing their election rules.

The bill would reduce the number of states requiring federal pre-clearance from nine to four, leaving Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia still covered under that provision of the old law.

Leahy said the proposal to update the historic Voting Rights Act (VRA) strikes a delicate balance between safeguarding constitutional rights and providing states the freedom to enact tougher laws to fight abuse at the polls.

“The modernized VRA is constitutional and bipartisan. It includes strong, nationwide anti-discrimination protections and continues to permit states to enact reasonable voter ID laws,” Leahy said. “Therefore, it prevents racial-discrimination and gives states the ability to address voter fraud.”

Under the bill, states with five violations of constitutional voting protections or federal voting laws over the last 15 years would be forced to get pre-clearance from Washington before altering their election procedures.

Election violations that a court rules are discriminatory would be counted toward the five-violation tally, but a court would not have the power to “bail-in” states that aren’t already covered based solely on a discriminatory voter ID ruling.

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In a sign that Democrats will likely sign on, House House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed the bill Thursday morning.

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Still, the proposal has a difficult road ahead, as it essentially aims to identify which parts of the country are most likely to discriminate against minorities at the polls—a charged political question that’s certain to incite a spirited fight in an already fractured Congress.

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The proposal is also taking some heat from the left, as some civil rights groups are already grumbling that the new coverage formula gives some states with tough new voting laws a free pass.

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In a 5-4 decision last June, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required a number of states with a history of racial discrimination to get Washington’s approval before changing their voting rules. The law was last reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2006, when Sensenbrenner headed the Judiciary Committee, but the formula dictating which states are subject to extra scrutiny is decades old.

Behind Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court’s conservative majority found that the formula dictating which states are subject to the extra hurdles—defined by Section 4 of the law—is outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

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The Court did not invalidate Section 5 of the law, which empowers the federal government to require pre-clearance of voting changes for certain states and localities. But without a formula to determine which regions are subject to the extra scrutiny, Section 5 was effectively neutered.

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