A top Republican has all but confirmed that Congress won’t move forward with legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was badly weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary committee, said Wednesday morning that the landmark civil rights legislation is still robust enough to stop racial discrimination in voting. “There are still very, very strong protections in the Voting Rights Act in the area that the Supreme Court ruled on,” Goodlatte said at a breakfast event with reporters, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “To this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now.” He added, according to an audio recording obtained by msnbc: “We’ll continue to examine this, we’ll continue to listen to the concerns of individuals, and we’ll certainly look at any instances of discrimination in people’s access to the ballot box, because it is a very, very important principle.”
It’s rare to see something new on the Hill these days. Congress is all but paralyzed, everyone is wary of proposing legislation, and members of Congress have never been known for thinking outside the box. And yet the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA)–Cong. James Sensenbrenner’s bipartisan effort to revive Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was effectively eviscerated by the Supreme Court last summer–was introduced earlier this year. And it offers a new paradigm for civil rights enforcement. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee will open a hearing where activists, legislators, and other interested parties will share ideas about just what sort of Voting Rights Act changes are sorely needed. Whether the VRAA succeeds, or even manages to become law, is anyone’s guess. But provisions of the bill are worth watching closely because they could reproduce some of the magic of the old Section 5. Section 5 used to require certain jurisdictions (mostly states in the Deep South) to ask the federal government’s permission before making a change in the way they ran elections. Until a rule was “precleared,” it could not be implemented. This unusual provision solved the central problem of voting-rights enforcement during the Civil Rights era–keeping up with the increasingly creative strategies recalcitrant localities used to disenfranchise voters. Every time a court deemed one discriminatory practice illegal, local officials would switch to another. Section 5 allowed the Department of Justice to get one step ahead of local official
The Senate Judiciary Committee next week will examine legislation designed to restore the voting rights protections shot down by the Supreme Court last summer. Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has scheduled a June 25 hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act, his bill aimed at updating those sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) deemed by the high court to be unconstitutional. The date marks the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision, which Leahy characterized as a “disastrous” threat to voting protections. He’s urging lawmakers to adopt his bill ahead of November’s midterm elections.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a June 25 hearing on a long-stalled bill to repair the 1965 Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court weakened the landmark civil rights legislation by weakening key provisions last year. ‘It is time for Congress to act,’ Leahy said in a statement Monday. ‘Just as Congress came together 50 years ago to enact the Civil Rights Act, Democrats and Republicans should work together now to renew and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which has always been bipartisan.’ The hearing will occur on the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling that knocked out parts of the voting rights act and urged Congress to revisit it, saying the law needs updating to account for how times have changed.
It seems like virtually everyone on Capitol Hill is interested in fixing the Voting Rights Act. But who will step up and make something happen? Last year, the Supreme Court hollowed out one of the most powerful parts of the law, a formula prescribing which states and localities had to get before-the-fact federal approval of any changes they wanted to make to their voting rules. Without the formula, which had been based on historical records of discrimination, the federal government had to stop its automatic review of alterations to voting-district boundaries and other election-related guidelines. The ruling hobbled a law that for decades has offered meaningful political representation to minority Americans by preventing discriminatory tricks from limiting their access to the franchise. The decision was also an insult to Congress, which in 2006 overwhelmingly determined that the act’s provisions — all of them — remain necessary.
Critics of tough voter ID laws are running out of time and options in their efforts to knock down those barriers ahead of this year’s midterm elections. Opponents got good news last week, when a state judge struck down Arkansas’s law, and another jolt Tuesday, when a federal judge ruled Wisconsin’s law, which wasn’t yet in effect, was unconstitutional. But their enthusiasm could be short-lived. At least eight states are still slated to have strict photo ID requirements in place in November, leading voting rights advocates to send dire warnings about potential disenfranchisement at the polls this year. Yet on Capitol Hill, the voter ID issue remains as partisan as ever, forcing even the sponsors of bills softening those rules to concede that their legislation has no chance of moving through a divided Congress in 2014. “My bill probably doesn’t have a lot of hope to it right now,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who’s pushing a proposal essentially nullifying many of the state-based ID requirements enacted in recent years, mostly by GOP legislatures, in the name of tackling election fraud. Instead, Democrats, advocates and other voter ID critics see their best hope in passing an update to the Voting Rights Act (VRA), the 1965 civil rights law that the Supreme Court gutted last summer.
Time is running out for Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court last year struck down major parts of the voting law, and a bipartisan fix has stalled in Congress. The justices ruled that the formula used to designate which parts of the country must face heightened federal voting clearances was outdated and unconstitutional. New legislation, introduced earlier this year, seeks to update the procedures. Advocates believe the bill will pass both chambers of Congress if it is brought up to a vote, but that looks unlikely. In the House, conservative Republicans, especially those from Southern states that are singled out for the extra scrutiny, are skeptical of the measure Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) hammered out with House and Senate Democrats. If the bill were signed into law soon, it would be in effect for this November’s elections. Some Democrats are unhappy with compromises struck to win GOP support related to voter identification. Others on the left are concerned with the scope of the bill. Previously, nine states with histories of voter discrimination were required to get federal approval before they changed their election procedures. Under the new plan, only four states would be forced to seek such approval. Still, most Democrats would back the bill if it comes up for a vote. A number of senior Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are on board.
Although the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the main muse of the Civil Rights Summit taking place at the LBJ Presidential Library this week, legislation passed the following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, has brought forth many words from the Obama administration this week, many of which can be linked neatly to the 2014 midterms and where the Democratic Party sees itself in the future. His discussion of voting rights is framed by the civil rights movement and the once overwhelming and bipartisan support for expanding voter franchise. He mentions that Strom Thurmond voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in the ’80s, and that the Senate vote to reauthorize the law in 2006 was 98-0. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said before that vote, “As we reflect on the true wrongs that existed in the 1950s and 1960s and where those wrongs may have taken place, we owe it to history . . . to pay tribute to those who took the law and made it a reality.” Last year, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which means states with a history of discrimination that once needed preclearance for redistricting no longer require special attention from the Justice Department, unless Congress passes an amended Section 4, an unlikely prospect given the current congressional class. Many state legislatures reacted by passing legislation that often makes it harder to vote. There are new voter-ID laws, and early voting and same-day registration have been sanded away in many states. The conservative argument for these laws is that they help prevent voter fraud. Democrats respond that it also prevents their base from voting.
A senior Democrat on Tuesday said he was “hopeful” the House would approve new voting rights legislation by the summer, despite the lack of an endorsement from the Republican leadership. “We are very hopeful that we will pass a voting rights bill and do so in the near term, hopefully in the next couple of months,” Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said during his weekly briefing with reporters. Hoyer over the weekend participated in an annual bipartisan pilgrimage to the South commemorating the civil rights movement. Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) also attended events on the trip, and Hoyer said he planned to meet with Cantor this week to discuss a legislative response to the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Cantor has joined the pilgrimage with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights leader, for the past two years, but he has yet to take a position on a bill that Lewis wrote with GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner (Wis.).
A powerful House Republican said this week that he’s preparing to throw his full weight behind the effort to reinstall the voting protections shot down by the Supreme Court in June. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, former head of the House Judiciary Committee, has been focused on a new surveillance bill in recent weeks. But speaking Tuesday at the Georgetown University Law Center, the 18-term Wisconsin Republican said he intends to shift gears to address the provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) deemed by the high court to be unconstitutional. “Once I am done with this issue, my next project is to try to constitutionalize those parts of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down,” Sensenbrenner said. While noting that he no longer heads the Judiciary panel, Sensenbrenner vowed he’s “keeping my hands in the pie and attempting to deal with issues that I think are important … to improving the quality of life for all of the people in the United States of America.”
During this week’s events commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington, the fight for voting rights emerged as a central cause for the civil rights movement. In 1963, few blacks could vote in the states of the Old Confederacy. In 2013, there’s a black president, but the right to vote is under the most sustained attack—in the states and the courts—since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. At the official commemoration today, Presidents Obama, Clinton and Carter voiced their dismay over the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the VRA and the rush to implement new voter suppression laws in seven Southern states since the ruling. “A great democracy does not make it harder to vote than to buy an assault weapon,” said Clinton, referencing a Texas voter ID law that accepts a concealed carry permit, but not a student ID, to cast a ballot. “I believe we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the new ID requirements to exclude certain voters, especially African-Americans,” said Carter. “I think we all know how Dr. King would have reacted to the Supreme Court striking down a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act just recently passed overwhelmingly by Congress.” We must challenge “those who erect new barriers to the vote,” said Obama.
The Obama administration has every right to challenge Texas’ unilateral adoption of new voting laws, a top Republican argued Thursday. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said the Voting Rights Act authorizes the Justice Department to seek a court order requiring states to get federal approval before implementing new election procedures, as Attorney General Eric Holder said he will do Thursday in the case of Texas. Holder’s announcement drew howls from Texas Republicans, who are accusing the DOJ of trampling states’ rights and ignoring June’s Supreme Court decision to eliminate a central part of the VRA. But Sensenbrenner, who as head of the House Judiciary Committee in 2006 championed the last VRA reauthorization, suggested those critics have misread his law. “The department’s actions are consistent with the Voting Rights Act,” Sensenbrenner said Thursday in an email.
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.)
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee were mostly no-shows at Wednesday’s high-profile hearing on restoring a portion of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last month. The Republicans chalked up their absence to scheduling confusion. With a brief appearance, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz became the only Republican to join Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and a packed room to hear testimony about updating formulas in the 1965 law that required jurisdictions in 15 states to clear changes to voting procedures with the Justice Department. “I actually was asking my staff, I think that may have been an oversight,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn, who sits on the committee, said. “I think that might have been an oversight because I had other scheduling, other matters scheduled.”
National: Sensenbrenner: New voting rights law should be passed before the 2014 Congress elections | The Washington Post
The House Republican sponsor of the Voting Rights Act updates said Wednesday that Congress must pass a new anti-discrimination law before the 2014 elections that restores the federal supervision the Supreme Court struck down in June. “The Supreme Court said it’s an obligation of Congress to do this. That’s a command of a separate but co-equal branch of government to do that,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., told reporters Wednesday after urging the Senate Judiciary Committee to get moving on the issue. The law, he said, should be passed before the congressional elections. He added that House GOP leaders are open to the task, but they have to see a draft first, it must address the court’s objections and be “politically acceptable in both houses” of Congress. “The American people expect us to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a veteran of the civil rights movement, said at the same hearing. The 1965 law and its extensions have historically won overwhelming bipartisan support.
National: Republicans hand first hearing on Voting Rights Act to opponent of Voting Rights Act | MSNBC
House Republicans are diving into the battle over renewing the Voting Rights Act, scheduling their first hearing on the issue for this Thursday. The hearing, confirmed by a GOP source and the House Judiciary Committee, marks the GOP’s first tangible legislative attempt to respond to the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision in June, which invalidated part of the VRA. The move suggests that Republican leaders, who mostly offered evasive statements after the Shelby decision, have decided they should engage some kind of legislative process to discuss the ruling. In fact, the hearing will come just one day after the Senate Democrats’ first hearing on the VRA. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on the VRA’s history from strong backers of the legislation, Rep. John Lewis and Rep. James Sensenbrenner. The move also shows, however, that some House Republicans are aiming to kill any voting rights reform. That’s because Republicans handed the hearing to Trent Franks, one of just 33 Republicans who voted against the last VRA re-authorization in 2006. (A total of 390 House members voted for it.)
A House Republican who led the last push to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act exhorted lawmakers Wednesday to join him in bringing the law back to life. The day after the Supreme Court quashed the anti-discrimination statute, Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) urged lawmakers to cast aside their differences and restore the rejected provisions for the sake of voter protection. “The Voting Rights Act is vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process,” Sensenbrenner, the second-ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday in a statement. “This is going to take time, and will require members from both sides of the aisle to put partisan politics aside and ensure Americans’ most sacred right is protected.” Republican Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio) and Sean Duffy (Wis.) also expressed support Wednesday for congressional action in response to the high court’s ruling.