As the fallout from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat continues, the departing number two in the House should burnish his legacy by pushing through a bill to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). The Voting Rights Act prohibits discriminatory actions that had largely denied blacks the ability to vote in the South since Reconstruction following the Civil War. Congress has reauthorized the provisions of the VRA four times—most recently in 2006, under the leadership of George W. Bush and with bipartisan support from Congress. The House supported the measure 390-33 and the Senate unanimously approved the legislation 98-0. So why reauthorize the VRA now, and why should Eric Cantor be the driving force?
The strength of this landmark law is contained within Section 5—whose provisions mandate that covered jurisdictions (nine States and several counties that had been found to discriminate in the past) in the United States must submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the Department of Justice prior to doing so—the so-called “pre-clearance provision.” Last year, the Supreme Court held in Shelby County v. Holder.
that the manner in which the federal government determined which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance was unconstitutional.
The bottom line? While the Court did not invalidate Section 5, it did rule Section 4(b) unconstitutional. Section 4(b) sets out the formulas for determining what jurisdictions can be covered under the law. Without those formulas, Section 5 can’t be enforced, so Section 5 has effectively been halted—until Congress steps in to rewrite the formulas, reflecting the progress we’ve made in the past 50 years to eliminate discrimination at the ballot box.