Attorney General Eric Holder’s surprise decision to challenge Texas’s voting laws triggers a huge new fight between the federal government and Southern states dominated by the Republican Party. Legal experts said the decision to seek a court order requiring Texas to obtain federal clearance before changing its voting laws lays the groundwork for an aggressive push to restore as much federal oversight as possible over state voting laws. “I think they’re going to try this wherever they think they have a shot,” Richard Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who specializes in election law, said of the Justice Department. Holder’s move is in response to the Supreme Court’s decision last month to toss out a central part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that determined which states required preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder strode onto the stage before the National Urban League on Thursday and announced his intention to take the fight for voting rights — both literally and figuratively — to Texas. The subsequent Republican sputterings and wistful Democratic musings fed the faithful in both parties. Republican leaders, firmly ensconced in power, scolded an intrusive federal government to the delight of the party’s conservative base, while Democrats saw Holder as a defender of the emerging Hispanic vote that would carry the party back to the promised land. But the announcement also gave sustenance to an army of lawyers engaged in what has become a never-ending legal battle over election laws and political map-making. Holder’s announcement was prompted by last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision, which effectively removed a vital provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). The provision had required 16 jurisdictions, including several former Confederate states like Texas, to seek pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) before making changes to election laws and redistricting maps. The attorney general called the court’s reasoning in the Shelby County v. Holder case “flawed”, and with little chance that a divided Congress would address the issue, the administration pledged to seek other remedies. Holder announced he would revive legal battles made moot by the high court decision by turning to other provisions in the VRA that allow plaintiffs to present specific evidence of minority disenfranchisement to the courts as a step to pre-clearance.
Two nominees to the Federal Election Commission testified before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on Wednesday in a short hearing that featured legalistic euphemisms and the invocation of “balls and strikes,” but little partisan rancor. Ann Ravel, a Democrat and chair of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, and Lee Goodman, a Republican election lawyer, both assured the committee that, if confirmed, they would enforce election and campaign finance laws on the books and seek to improve transparency by updating the FEC’s website. “I’m committed to enforcement of the act,” Goodman said. “I will not call balls and strikes differently for each party.” Ravel, noting the democratic principles her parents had instilled in her, said, “An important aspect of this job is to ensure that people participate in politics.”
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are seeking to strengthen the Voting Rights Act by making it easier for judges to expand voter protections across the country in response to individual discrimination lawsuits. The effort goes beyond crafting a broad definition of which voters should get extra protection based on regional records of racial discrimination. The move is an indication that some Democrats are hoping to use last month’s Supreme Court decision scrapping the law’s Section 4 coverage formula as an opportunity to bolster other provisions of the landmark civil rights legislation that were left intact by the ruling. Specifically, the lawmakers are taking a close look at revising Section 3, which empowers the court to apply Section 5’s federal “preclearance” requirements to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against minority voters.
It’s old news that the Federal Election Commission (FEC) — the agency charged with enforcing the nation’s campaign finance laws — is moribund by ideological stalemate. But on July 25, the Commission is expected to vote on a measure that would neuter even the staff’s ability to get much done. The FEC is broken not because of its staff, a corps of professionals working hard in a futile effort to get the agency back on track. It is broken because of its management: the six commissioners (currently only five) who determine what the agency will and will not do. In an ideal world, the Commission is composed of three Democrats and three Republicans dedicated to enforcing the law who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. To ensure bipartisan fairness, official actions require a four-vote majority. In reality, the FEC is unable to do its job because a bloc of commissioners has been carefully selected to prevent four-vote decisions, thus effectively tying up the law. It is no secret that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has never met a campaign finance law he likes. While McConnell cannot convince Congress or the public to end limits and disclosure of money in politics, he has figured out that the campaign finance laws can be nullified by a hostile FEC. So McConnell selected three Republican commissioners — Don McGahn, Caroline Hunter and Matthew Petersen — who are marching in lockstep to prevent enforcement of the law.
After a political group in Texas asked the IRS for a tax exemption last year, it got a lengthy, time-consuming list of questions — like a request for the minutes of all the board meetings since the group got started. And a California-based group got turned down completely in 2011, because the IRS concluded that it was set up “primarily for the benefit of a political party.” These two stories sound like they’d fit right into the raging IRS scandal over its treatment of conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. The only difference: these two groups — Progress Texas and Emerge America — were unabashedly liberal. POLITICO surveyed the liberal groups from an IRS list of advocacy organizations that were approved after the tougher examinations started. The review found some examples of liberal groups facing scrutiny similar to their conservative counterparts — they were asked for copies of web pages, actions alerts, and written materials from all of their events.
Access to the polls has not always been assured for all Americans, and before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many were subjected to so-called literacy tests and poll tax. The law was created to tackle such injustices, but in June, the Supreme Court struck a key provision of the legislation. Section 4 established a formula determining which states and localities had to get federal approval (known as pre-clearance) before changing their voting procedures. The provision applied to nine states, mainly in the South, with a history of voter discrimination. The court deemed it unconstitutional for relying on old data. It is now up to Congress to figure out where the Voting Rights Act goes from here. Both the House and Senate held hearings this past week.
The Voting Rights Act remains an effective tool for preventing discrimination against minority voters even after the Supreme Court threw out a key section last month, a key House Republican said Thursday. Democrats countered that the remaining provisions aren’t enough and said the one the court overturned needs to be replaced. That dispute played out before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, the second congressional panel this week to discuss the Supreme Court’s June 25 decision in a historic case out of Shelby County, Ala. The court’s 5-4 decision ended the 48-year-old requirement that certain states with a history of discrimination at the polls — including Alabama and South Carolina — obtain “pre-clearance” from federal officials before making any changes to their election procedures.
Congress kicked off an effort to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with a series of Capitol Hill hearings this week, less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court severely weakened the law by striking down a key anti-discrimination provision. No legislation has been proposed yet. But senators and a leading representative spoke during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday about their appetite to fix the now-unconstitutional Section 4 formula, which set out when a state or local jurisdiction warrants special scrutiny before it can implement electoral changes. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who led the House effort to reauthorize the VRA in 2006, testified that he is committed to crafting a constitutional response to the Shelby County v. Holder decision that “will last a long time.”
Congress took the first step Wednesday toward trying to repair a vital section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, a month after the Supreme Court ruled the provision unconstitutional. In a packed hearing room, witnesses told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Congress needs to put partisanship aside and work together to come up with a solution to fix the Section 4 formula, a linchpin of the act. “A bipartisan Congress and Republican presidents worked to reauthorize this law four times,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, told the Senate committee. “The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were, or will be, violated; it is the duty of Congress to restore the life and soul to the Voting Rights Act. And we must do it on our watch, at this time.”
Key lawmakers vowed Wednesday to ensure the full Voting Rights Act is restored to full strength, following the Supreme Court’s June decision to strike down part of the law. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the GOP negotiator of the law’s most recent reauthorization, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the high court decision “severely weakened the protections both Republicans and Democrats fought hard to preserve” and that he already is working on a response to deal with the new gaps in the law. “The Voting Rights Act is the most successful of all civil rights acts in actually limiting discrimination. We cannot afford to lose it now,” the former House Judiciary chairman said. “I’m working to pass a constitutional response to the Shelby v. Holder decision.” In front of his Senate colleagues, however, Sensenbrenner conceded the challenges he faces in the GOP-controlled House. When he pushed to reauthorize the legislation in 2006, it was in part because he feared that when he surrendered his gavel to caucus-imposed term limits, his successor would not work to re-up the law. “Sometimes the difference between [the House] and the Senate is the difference between here and the moon,” Sensenbrenner said.
Several Republicans spoke out against VRA reform today, but softly. Rep. Franks, who is known for his strident abortion views and opposition to the VRA, struck a respectful and bipartisan tone. He hailed John Lewis as a civil rights hero. He emphasized his openness to working with James Sensenbrenner, the most prominent Republican backer of the VRA. But Franks has not changed his mind. After the hearing, he told me that his “heart and mind is open,” but he doesn’t think VRA reform is necessary. He pointed to parts of the law that the Supreme Court didn’t strike down. And he said when he assesses racism in America, he looks to the Court’s standards, voter turnout in the South, and the “mechanisms of discrimination” that were used in the 1960s. “I don’t know all of the suppression that existed at the time,” he volunteered, but still, Franks said he believes under current precedent, DOJ no longer needs to oversee local voting in advance. Several witnesses and Democratic members marshaled data showing the persistence of voter discrimination today, and the need for the VRA’s supervision. But just as Senate Democrats muddled their focus at yesterday’s hearing, some House Democrats hit on themes that are unlikely to recruit GOP support. (Rick Hasen, an election law expert, has more on that point.)
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were mostly no-shows at Wednesday’s high-profile hearing on restoring a portion of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last month. The Republicans chalked up their absence to scheduling confusion. With a brief appearance, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the only Republican to join Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and a packed room to hear testimony about updating formulas in the 1965 law that required jurisdictions in 15 states to clear changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department. “I actually was asking my staff, I think that may have been an oversight,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who sits on the committee, said. “I think that might have been an oversight because I had other scheduling, other matters scheduled.”
National: Should Congress restore key part of Voting Rights Act? House hears both sides. | CSMonitor.com
Voting rights experts presented sharply divergent opinions to a House Judiciary subcommittee on Thursday as members of Congress tried to assess the impact of the US Supreme Court’s decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. Some analysts told the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice that the remaining provisions of the VRA were more than enough to safeguard minority voting rights. Others said the high court’s action marked a considerable setback to future efforts to fight discrimination in the United States. “We have made amazing progress in this country over the last 50 years,” said Spencer Overton, a voting rights scholar and professor at George Washington University Law School. “Unfortunately, evidence shows that too many political operatives maintain power by manipulating election rules based on how voters look and speak.” Professor Overton said Congress must update the VRA and reauthorize the section struck down by the Supreme Court.
Two powerful Democrats are poised to urge President Obama to resuscitate a defunct federal panel created to help Americans vote. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) are preparing a resolution calling on the president to fill the vacancies on the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), Hoyer said Tuesday. The four-seat board has been empty for more than a year, largely because GOP leaders — wary of Washington’s role in state-run elections — have refused to recommend nominees to fill the spots, as current law dictates. That’s a mistake, Hoyer said, particularly in a political environment where an increasing number of states have made it tougher to vote in the name of fighting fraud. “The Election Assistance Commission was established to provide advice and council on best practices on elections. It has been allowed to atrophy, and the Republicans want to eliminate it,” Hoyer told reporters in the Capitol. “It’s interesting but disappointing.”
The Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 legislation that protects against racially discriminatory voting practices, had long received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, including for the last renewal of its temporary provisions in 2006. But at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, early discussions on how to respond to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling striking down Section 4 of the law saw Democrats and Republicans mostly divided over the provision’s utility and future. While several Democrats chided the Supreme Court for undermining the country’s most effective protection against voting discrimination, even as the court acknowledged that the problem still existed, Republicans suggested that policies were outdated and that the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act remained essentially unchanged.
Following the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a key portion of the landmark Voting Rights Act, activists and those in states with a history of disenfranchisement at the polls are pinning their hopes on congressional action. But those hopes may be long deferred. A member of Congress who shed blood during the long march to civil rights told a Senate committee on Wednesday that he believes the Voting Rights Act “is needed now more than ever.” “The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were, or will be, violated. It is the duty of Congress to restore the life and soul to the Voting Rights Act,” said veteran congressman John Lewis. “The day of the Supreme Court decision broke my heart. It made me want to cry,” the Georgia Democrat told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
National: Sensenbrenner: New voting rights law should be passed before the 2014 Congress elections | The Washington Post
The House Republican sponsor of the Voting Rights Act updates said Wednesday that Congress must pass a new anti-discrimination law before the 2014 elections that restores the federal supervision the Supreme Court struck down in June. “The Supreme Court said it’s an obligation of Congress to do this. That’s a command of a separate but co-equal branch of government to do that,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told reporters Wednesday after urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to get moving on the issue. The law, he said, should be passed before the congressional elections. He added that House GOP leaders are open to the task, but they have to see a draft first, it must address the court’s objections and be “politically acceptable in both houses” of Congress. “The American people expect us to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement, said at the same hearing. The 1965 law and its extensions have historically won overwhelming bipartisan support.
House Republicans have scheduled their first hearing on the Voting Rights Act for Thursday, following a June ruling by the Supreme Court overturning a key provision of the civil rights law. The hearing, to be held by the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, comes a day after the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on the law for the first time since the ruling. The 5-4 decision found that Congress had not appropriately considered the nation’s racial progress when signaling out a set of states that required preclearance from the federal government before making any changes to election or voting laws. The states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as parts of seven other states — were selected by a congressionally mandated formula examining past history of voting rights abuses.
Interviews with 15 U.S. Internal Revenue Service employees show no political motivation or White House involvement in targeting groups applying for tax-exempt status, House Democrats said in a memo. The 36-page memo released by Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee includes excerpts from several employee interviews with congressional investigators that haven’t been distributed publicly until today. The IRS has apologized for the delays and selective scrutiny given to Tea Party groups applying for nonprofit status. Democrats in Congress have resisted Republican arguments that IRS employees used their positions to harm Republican-leaning groups. Instead, they maintain that Tea Party groups were the victims of inadequate rules and inadvertent bungling.
he U.S. office charged with protecting the voting rights of racial minorities is changing its focus but not its commitment after the Supreme Court last month invalidated part of a federal voting rights law, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said on Tuesday. Speaking at a major civil rights convention in Florida, Holder said he was shifting staff within the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to emphasize enforcement of parts of the law that the high court left untouched. In June, a 5-4 conservative majority of the Supreme Court struck down a section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that allowed the Justice Department to block states and localities from enacting election laws that could be discriminatory. The court ruled that the formula for determining which states and localities were subject to the additional scrutiny was out of date. Lawmakers could update the formula, the court said, but it remains unclear whether they will.
The investigator who wrote a scathing report about the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative political groups is heading back to Capitol Hill as a key House Democrat says his committee’s investigation has found no evidence of political bias at the agency. IRS inspector general J. Russell George is to testify Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, along with two IRS workers who have been interviewed as part of the committee’s investigation. George has been criticized by some congressional Democrats who say his report failed to mention that some liberal groups were targeted, too. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., released a memo Tuesday saying that interviews with 15 IRS employees and reviews of thousands of emails reveal no evidence of political bias by IRS workers. The memo said there is also no evidence that anyone outside the IRS directed the targeting.
Every ten years, after the U.S. Census releases its latest population reports, most of the 50 states begin the complicated process of drawing new election districts. As you might expect, partisan bickering and maneuvering inevitably distort things. So a decade ago, Arizona voters decided to end the partisanship by removing the redistricting process from the state legislature and placing it in the hands of an independent commission. Last year, the new commission, consisting of two Democrats, two Republicans, and a nonpartisan chair, got to work on its first set of maps after the 2010 census. Unfortunately, the results were anything but nonpartisan. The independent chair sided consistently with the two Democrats, essentially giving them control over the makeup of the congressional and state legislative maps. Lawsuits were launched, along with a push by Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, to impeach the chair. The new maps, if let stand, “could reshape the state’s political landscape” in the Democrats’ favor, the Arizona Republic reported. Already, state lawmakers are looking at doing away with the commission or significantly changing it.
National: Republicans hand first hearing on Voting Rights Act to opponent of Voting Rights Act | MSNBC
House Republicans are diving into the battle over renewing the Voting Rights Act, scheduling their first hearing on the issue for this Thursday. The hearing, confirmed by a GOP source and the House Judiciary Committee, marks the GOP’s first tangible legislative attempt to respond to the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision in June, which invalidated part of the VRA. The move suggests that Republican leaders, who mostly offered evasive statements after the Shelby decision, have decided they should engage some kind of legislative process to discuss the ruling. In fact, the hearing will come just one day after the Senate Democrats’ first hearing on the VRA. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on the VRA’s history from strong backers of the legislation, Rep. John Lewis and Rep. James Sensenbrenner. The move also shows, however, that some House Republicans are aiming to kill any voting rights reform. That’s because Republicans handed the hearing to Trent Franks, one of just 33 Republicans who voted against the last VRA re-authorization in 2006. (A total of 390 House members voted for it.)
Long-standing dysfunction at the Federal Election Commission reached a new level of personal acrimony in recent weeks, fueled by a power struggle between Republican commissioners and the agency’s top lawyer, who abruptly resigned. The battle threatens to further obstruct the work of the beleaguered commission, which is charged with policing candidates’ and political groups’ compliance with disclosure rules and other requirements of the vast campaign finance system. The fight is centered on a push by the Republican commissioners to bar FEC staff members from sharing information with federal prosecutors unless the panel — currently dominated by GOP members — gives its approval. The commission’s lone Democrat and many campaign-finance experts say the move could politicize such decisions and hamper the ability of the FEC and the Justice Department to prosecute election violations.
The Senate Rules and Administration Committee will on July 24 conduct a confirmation hearing on President Barack Obama’s two new nominees to the Federal Election Commission, three government officials familiar with the proceedings tell the Center for Public Integrity. The hearing, if conducted as planned, means the nominations could move forward to the full Senate before the body recesses on August 2 for a five-week summer break. Committee members may vote to approve or reject the nominees — Lee E. Goodman, an attorney at law firm LeClairRyan, and Ann Ravel, chairwoman of the California Fair Political Practices Commission — or forward the nominations to the full Senate without recommendation. Obama nominated Ravel and Goodman on June 21, as the Center previously reported.
The free charter flight for Mitt Romney campaign volunteers seemed like an open-and-shut case for the six members of the Federal Election Commission. A wealthy friend of Romney spent $150,000 to fly as many as 200 campaign volunteers from Utah to a fund-raising phone-a-thon in Boston. The three Democrats on the FEC agreed with the agency’s staff that the charter appeared to violate rules limiting such “in-kind’’ gifts to $2,600 per election. But the three Republican commissioners disagreed, saying Romney’s friend merely acted “in behalf of’’ Romney’s 2008 campaign — not the illegal “on behalf of” — and thus the flight was allowed. With that twist of legal semantics, the case died — effectively dismissed. The 3-3 deadlock was part of a pattern of paralysis that has over the past five years gripped the commission, the nation’s principal referee for federal elections. The FEC has often been the subject of criticism since its founding four decades ago. But the impression of weakness has escalated dramatically, as Republicans named to the panel in 2008, united in the belief that the commission had been guilty of regulatory overreach, have moved to soften enforcement, block new rules, and limit oversight. In essence, according to critics, the FEC has been rendered toothless, and at the worst possible time, when powerful special interests are freer than they have been in decades to exert financial influence on Washington politicians.
State officials across the South are aggressively moving ahead with new laws requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls after the Supreme Court decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act. The Republicans who control state legislatures throughout the region say such laws are needed to prevent voter fraud. But such fraud is extremely rare, and Democrats are concerned that the proposed changes will make it harder for many poor voters and members of minorities — who tend to vote Democratic — to cast their ballots in states that once discriminated against black voters with poll taxes and literacy tests. The Supreme Court ruling last month freed a number of states with a history of discrimination, mostly in the South, of the requirement to get advance federal permission in order to make changes to their election laws.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin holding hearings next week on the future of the Voting Rights Act after the heart of the landmark legislation was gutted by the Supreme Court last month, Chairman Patrick Leahy said Wednesday. During the hearing, titled “From Selma to Shelby County: Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act,” senators will hear testimony on the way forward in the wake of the recent Court ruling that functionally weakened the Justice Department in its ability to block discriminatory laws before they went into effect in certain states and jurisdictions. Civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis will testify at the hearing, Leahy said, along with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who has already signaled his willingness to move forward on new legislation designed to restore the gap left in the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court’s recent decision.
National: Obama tells black lawmakers he’ll help rebuild Voting Rights Act | The Dallas Morning News
President Barack Obama pledged to black lawmakers Tuesday that he will help rebuild the Voting Rights Act after a Supreme Court ruling gutted federal oversight of states with a history of bias. “He’s with us, and he wants to make sure we do something to strengthen voting rights for all Americans,” Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, said at the White House after Obama met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Black lawmakers said they also discussed how to develop a new formula for deciding which states deserve extra scrutiny. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court struck down the existing formula, based on decades-old voting data. That freed Texas and eight other states from having to get federal permission for any change to voting laws and procedures. Given the polarization in Congress, it’s unlikely lawmakers will act any time soon.