With the Supreme Court set to hear a challenge to a main provision of the Voting Rights Act in February, advocates argued Wednesday that the November elections only underscored the need for the law and its protections of minority voting rights. The high court will hear a challenge by Shelby County, Ala., that the so-called “pre-clearance” portion of the act, which requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to get approval of the Justice Department before making changes to their voting rules, is unconstitutional. But opening a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was concerned even before Election Day about a “renewed effort in many states to deny millions of Americans access to the ballot box through voter purges and voter identification laws,” adding, “what we saw during the election shows that we were right to be concerned. Purges of voter rolls, restrictions on voter registration, and limitations on early voting…led to unnecessary and avoidable problems.”
Before and after Election Day, Democrats charged that Republican state officials and their advocates pushed tactics including new voter identification requirements, elimination of early and weekend voting — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to encumber participation by blacks, Latinos, the elderly and the poor — groups that disproportionately favored President Obama and other Democrats.
Leahy said even though many people managed to vote despite hours’ long lines at the polls and administrative hang-ups, the “barriers…remind us of a time when discriminatory practices such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were commonplace…barriers that seem to fall heaviest on African-Americans, Hispanics, military veterans, college students, the poor, and senior citizens.”
The 1965 Voting Rights with its pre-clearance provision was renewed most recently in 2006 by an overwhelming vote of Congress.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, supported it then and in earlier iterations. As one of only a handful of senators at today’s hearing and the only GOP member, Grassley said, “it seems to me in any discussion of voting rights, the terms ‘disenfranchisement’ and ‘suppression’ are thrown about sometimes in a cavalier fashion.”