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.”
In a 5-4 decision last month, the court ruled that the Section 4 formula, which determined which states and jurisdictions had to get Justice Department approval before changing any of their voting procedures, was unconstitutional because it was based on “decades-old data and eradicated practices.”
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who chaired the House Judiciary Committee when he helped write the Voting Rights Act’s 2006 reauthorization, chastised the Supreme Court for citing record African-American and Hispanic voter turnout in last year’s presidential election as evidence that the Section 4 formula is outdated.
“I did not expect my career to include a third reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, but I believe it is a necessary challenge,” Sensenbrenner said in written testimony. “Voter discrimination still exists, and our progress towards equality should not be mistaken for a final victory.”
Several lawmakers have questioned whether Congress is up to the challenge of fixing Section 4, given the hyper-partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill.