Civil rights advocates and some progressives are voicing concerns about a bipartisan Voting Rights Act overhaul introduced in both houses of Congress Thursday. The proposal would reinstate federal oversight of states with a recent history of voter discrimination, though it leaves voter ID laws off the list of grievances that qualify as discrimination. The original Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 and amended most recently in 2006, subjected states and counties that had historically used a “test or device” like literacy tests or racial gerrymandering to restrict voting to special oversight—any new election laws in those places had to be approved as nondiscriminatory by the federal government.
The formula for determining which jurisdictions needed oversight—which included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia along with parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, and South Dakota—was ruled unconstitutional in a controversial Supreme Court decision last year. In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts called the formula outdated, writing, “It would have been irrational for Congress to distinguish between states in such a fundamental way based on 40-year-old data, when today’s statistics tell an entirely different story.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced a bill to revamp that formula and reinstate the Voting Rights Act’s protections. Under the proposal, any states whose electoral changes violated federal laws (like Texas’ redistricting attempt, which federal judges tossed out in 2012 due to its dilution of minority voting power) five times over the past 15 years would be subject to federal scrutiny, while any local jurisdiction with three violations or one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” would get the same treatment. Under these rules, only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas would fall under statewide federal oversight.