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.)
“Stand Your Ground” laws were raised by one congressman–a hot topic of high valence and low relevance. On the other hand, some Republicans tried to pivot the conversation to voter fraud, an issue that is not directly implicated in reforming Section 4 or 5 of the law.
When you talk to members of Congress and Hill staff, it seems like VRA reform has yet to bubble up as a topic that House leadership feels compelled to address. Franks told me after the hearing that he has not specifically discussed the issue with Speaker Boehner or Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Nadler, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, has not huddled with them either, though he is hopeful Cantor will build on his travels with John Lewis (see post below).
And Franks declined to say whether future VRA hearings will be scheduled–though Hill sources expect more hearings in both houses of Congress–or whether leadership should apply a majority-of-the-majority test to a VRA vote, a practice known as “The Hastert Rule” (a misnomer). So at this point, it looks like some key House Republicans don’t want to be known for killing the Voting Rights Act, but they’d be happy with it dead.