President Obama’s call to renew the VRA is DOA on Capitol Hill—despite the best efforts of a conservative Republican congressman. Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner is nobody’s idea of a pussycat. A combative conservative and former chair of the House Judiciary committee, he vowed more than a year ago to restore the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court in 2013 overturned a key section monitoring states that had been past offenders. He said the historic civil-rights legislation “is vital to our commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in our electoral process.” He promised action before the 2014 election. There’s no question that Sensenbrenner’s commitment is real, but the legislative fix that he fashioned is stalled in Congress and going nowhere. This is despite the fact that one of his principle co-sponsors is Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a civil-rights icon who marched in Selma last weekend to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the VRA.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner fell short in his 2014 efforts to convince GOP leadership to take up his Voting Rights Amendment Act, but the Wisconsin Republican is ready to take another stab at passing a rewrite of the historic law. But there’s little indication this year will be any different. For Sensenbrenner and his fellow co-sponsors of the legislation introduced Wednesday, many of the same obstacles remain — along with a few new ones. On the surface, it would seem the time has never been better — nor the political pressures greater — for the Republican-controlled House to take action. The VRA’s 50th anniversary this summer has the landmark civil rights legislation back in the spotlight almost two years after the Supreme Court, challenging lawmakers to update the law for the 21st century, struck down the enforcement section of the act. Sensenbrenner chose to drop his bill on the same day the House considered legislation to award Congressional Gold Medals to the “foot soldiers” of 1965’s bloody civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) are reintroducing their bill to restore part of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, despite warnings by prominent Republicans that they won’t support it. The bill aims to revive a section of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of racial discrimination to approve voting changes with the Justice Department. The Supreme Court overturned the formula in 2013, determining the criteria were outdated. The proposed overhaul from Sensenbrenner and Conyers would create new criteria for “pre-clearance,” allowing courts to place states under that standard if they commit certain voting violations. The bill would also give the Justice Department more power to step in before an election takes place to protect voting rights.
President Barack Obama named voting rights protections as a priority in his State of the Union address Tuesday, but legislation that would restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act faces tough challenges this Congress. That legislation, called the Voting Rights Amendment Act, would resurrect the 1965 law’s “pre-clearance” provision requiring states with a history of voting discrimination to get federal approval before making any changes in their elections procedures. The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 — in Shelby County vs. Holder — that the formula used to determine which states were subject to pre-clearance was invalid, effectively nullifying the provision itself.
One year after the Supreme Court struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, Congress is nowhere near close to moving forward with restoring a federal approval requirement for certain voting process changes. While Democratic leaders rallied this week to urge Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act — a law to rewrite the section 4 formula — a top House Republican said Thursday the bill wasn’t going to move quickly, if at all. The VRAA, written by Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner and Michigan Democrat John Conyers, is viewed in Congress and by outside advocates as the best chance to reinstate some of the provisions. Section 4 was the formula used to determine which states needs pre-clearance from the federal government for changes to their voting laws. The Supreme Court ruled that the formula was outdated and Congress could come up with a new one.
Last night, Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran narrowly defeated Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel, in part by courting black voters. “Voting rights has been an issue of great importance in Mississippi,” Cochran said yesterday. Black turnout increased significantly in yesterday’s runoff election, which helped Cochran win by 6,000 votes. “In Mississippi’s twenty-four counties with a majority black population, turnout increased an average of 40 percent over the primary,” reported The Washington Post. In 2006, Cochran was one of ninety-eight Senate Republicans who voted unanimously to reauthorize the temporary provisions of the Voting Rights Act for another twenty-five years. But last year, Cochran applauded the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidating Section 4 of the VRA, which freed states like Mississippi, with the worst history of voting discrimination, from having to approve their voting changes with the federal government under Section 5 of the act. “I think our state can move forward and continue to ensure that our democratic processes are open and fair for all without being subject to excessive scrutiny by the Justice Department,” Cochran said. Cochran was, in effect, celebrating a decision gutting a law that he supported just a few years earlier.
It’s hard to believe. In our sixth year with an African-American president, one-half century after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the bloody “Freedom Summer” of 1964, some Americans are still being denied the right to vote or facing government-erected obstacles to their exercise of the right on account of their race. Some states have adopted voter ID laws imposing unneeded requirements that tens of thousands of qualified voters can’t meet. Some have shortened voting hours or eliminated “early voting” days intended to accommodate people who’ll be out of town or can’t get away from their jobs on Election Day. Some persist in using outmoded, prone-to-malfunction voting machines that force would-be voters to stand in line for hours in order to cast their ballots. Those of us who were around 50 years ago this week, when the landmark civil rights law was passed, knew it wouldn’t be easy for the country to overcome its long, shameful history of discrimination. We were sad, but not surprised, when the hundreds of college kids who went south in that summer of ‘64 to work for civil rights were beaten and spat upon — and in three cases murdered. But we also had plenty of reason for hope, including the presence of a strong, bipartisan coalition in Congress in support of civil rights, and voting rights laws in particular. Where today’s Congress is all but paralyzed by partisanship, Capitol Hill in 1964 was a place where Democrats and Republicans often found ways to compromise on behalf of the public interest. There is a chance this week to advance the difficult work of recapturing that spirit, and a new struggle for voting rights provides it.
During a speech on Friday at the National Action Network, President Obama made his strongest and most extensive comments yet on the topic of voting rights. “The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago,” Obama said. “Across the country, Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.” The election of the first black president and the resurrection of voter suppression efforts was hardly a coincidence. New voting restrictions took effect in nineteen states from 2011–12. Nine states under GOP control have adopted measures to make it more difficult to vote since 2013. Since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, half of the states (eight in total) previously covered under Section 5 have passed or implemented new voting restrictions. … Things weren’t always this way. In his new book about the Civil Rights Act, An Idea Whose Time Has Come, Todd Purdum tells the story of Bill McCulloch, a conservative Republican from Ohio who championed civil rights as the ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. The Politico excerpt from the book was titled “The Republican Who Saved Civil Rights.”
Democrats and civil rights groups are stepping up demands for Congress to move on legislation that would require some Southern states, including Mississippi and Louisiana, to once again get federal approval before making election changes. Almost 160 Democrats in Congress recently wrote House Republican leaders calling for action on the stalled bill, which they said would “restore the safeguards of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.” Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., signed the letter. Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, didn’t, saying the measure wouldn’t include key states with a long history of discrimination, including Alabama. “There is a lot of concern that many of those areas will not be covered with the new bill,” said Thompson. “At the end of the day if the bill comes to the floor in whatever form, in all probability I’ll support it. But at this point, I’m going to lobby for a better bill.”
Until recently, the federal government monitored states like Arizona — which has the country’s fifth-largest Hispanic eligible voter population — that had a demonstrated history of racial discrimination at the polls. Arizona was one of nine states, along with other jurisdictions, required by Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, to get federal approval before making changes to its voting laws. But in 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, ruling in Shelby County v. Holder that they were based on outdated data. In response, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced legislation that would strengthen the Voting Rights Act. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., John Conyers, Jr., D-Mich. and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have introduced the Voting Rights Amendment of 2014. But under their plan, only four states – Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi – would initially be subject to federal supervision.
Congress leaned toward a breakthrough on Thursday, as elder statesmen from both parties agreed on a plan to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rep. John Lewis, who was beaten during the Selma march for civil rights in 1965, joined Rep. John Conyers, first elected that same year, and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, the conservative author of the Patriot Act and a longtime backer of the Voting Rights Act. They offered the first legislative response to the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the law last year. In June, the court invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act because the law was not updated for current conditions. Chief Justice Roberts criticized Congress for using “40-year-old data” to patrol modern voter discrimination. That was peculiar logic, since most federal regulations sit on the books without updates. After all, laws aren’t iPhone apps. Their power comes from permanence, not a constant refinement. As Richard Posner, a respected appeals judge, explained in a critique of the ruling, “ordinarily… a federal statute is not invalidated on the ground that it’s dated.”
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.
Lawmakers announced Thursday bipartisan legislation that would restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act that were thrown out by the Supreme Court last summer. The bill would also establish new criteria to determine whether states need to seek federal approval for proposed changes to voting rules. The legislation is a response to the high court’s ruling in June that Southern states had been unfairly singled out by the long-standing formula used to determine which states must seek federal “pre-clearance” before changing their voting laws. The proposed legislation would establish a new trigger. Any state that is found to have committed five voting violations over a 15-year period would be subject to federal scrutiny of any new voting laws for a period of 10 years. It would also allow states to create “reasonable” photo identification laws. Four states would be subject to the law immediately upon enactment: Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Several months after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers plans to introduce a legislative fix on Thursday afternoon. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made a passing reference to developments on the VRA front at a news conference earlier in the day. “I want to say that I’m pleased with what I see as bipartisan progress — and that’s a good thing — that’s being made on addressing the Voting Rights Act, and I think we’re going to be hearing an announcement on that later today,” Pelosi said. “I’m not here to announce it, but I’m here to say what’s occurred in briefings and meetings we’ve had. While it’s not the bill everyone will love, it is bipartisan, it is progress and it is worthy of support.” Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., confirmed Pelosi’s remarks while heading into the House chamber, adding that Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., are the sponsors.
Today Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will introduce legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last June invalidating a critical section of the VRA. The legislation, known as “The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014,” represents the first attempt by a bipartisan group in Congress to reinstate the vital protections of the VRA that the Supreme Court took away. In the Shelby County v. Holder ruling on June 25, 2013, the Court’s conservative majority struck down Section 4 of the VRA, the formula that compelled specific states with a well-documented history of voting discrimination to clear their voting changes with the federal government under Section 5 of the VRA. The two provisions were always meant to work together; without Section 4, Section 5 became a zombie, applying to zero states.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, most notably the requirement that states with a history of voter suppression obtain federal permission to change their voting laws. Those states are in the South. The road to restore that act runs through Wisconsin. “I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act,” U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., said in August, surprising attendees at a GOP luncheon commemorating the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Though they didn’t lose their lunch, party members — whose colleagues in some states had already moved to enact strict voter restrictions — weren’t expecting that announcement. An RNC spokesman told me then that Sensenbrenner wasn’t speaking for the party. Members of the other party didn’t all jump on the bandwagon, either. A spokesman for Democratic Minnesota Rep. Rick Nolan said then that Nolan would support the idea — adding an asterisk: “assuming it’s straightforward.”
Democrats in both chambers are working behind the scenes to draft legislation to re-install the Voting Rights Act protections shot down by the Supreme Court over the summer. But in a sign of the delicate nature of the topic, Senate Democrats are taking care not to rush ahead of the House, for fear of sinking the bill’s chances in the GOP-controlled lower chamber. Instead, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is working with House Democrats and a small contingent of House Republicans – notably former Judiciary Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.), who championed the 2006 VRA reauthorization – in an effort to defuse the partisan politics surrounding the thorny issue and forge a bill that has the best chance of becoming law. “We’ve had hearings and now we’re just trying to quietly get some support, because I don’t want to bring up something that doesn’t go anywhere,” Leahy said Thursday.
The big surprise at the Republican National Committee’s lunch celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was the loud ovation for an elderly white conservative. The tall, 70-year-old Congressman hobbled to the front of the room with a cane. He had to be helped up the stairs to the stage. But once he reached the microphone, his call for Congress to restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) had the crowd scrambling to get to their feet and applaud him. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) defied political stereotypes and several other Republicans when he announced an end-of-the-year deadline for reviving the pre-clearance provision of the VRA. “I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act as an effective tool to prevent discrimination,” said Sensenbrenner to repeated cheers. He was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when a bipartisan group approved reauthorization of the VRA in 2006. “This is something that has to be done by the end of the year so that a revised and constitutional Voting Rights Act is in place by the 2014 elections — both the primaries and general election,” Sensenbrenner told his largely black Republican audience.
U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, continues to campaign for Congress to restore many election monitoring powers to the federal government that a Supreme Court decision effectively stripped when it struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in June. The ruling did not forbid the federal government from subjecting certain jurisdictions to federal approval to make local voting changes, but it did strike down the criteria that the feds have used for nearly 50 years to determine which locales (mostly in the South) would be affected. Until Congress comes up with new criteria, no jurisdictions will be required to get federal approval for changes to their election procedures. “I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act as an effective tool to prevent discrimination, more so subtle discrimination now than overt discrimination,” the veteran Republican said in a speech to a Republican National Committee event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Sensenbrenner’s statement is notable for two reasons. First, he is straying from the GOP mantra that the greatest threat to elections is voter fraud, rather than voter disenfranchisement. Although Sensenbrenner supports Voter ID requirements, which Democrats criticize as disproportionately disenfranchising minority voters, Sensenbrenner is apparently not dismissing the notion that roadblocks to minority voting continue.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said Monday that he will attempt to replace, by the end of the year, the portion of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court. Sensenbrenner’s comments came Monday at an event hosted by the Republican National Committee, commemorating the March on Washington. Sensenbrenner said he wants to fix the law so that it is immune to court challenges.
Although many congressional Republicans so far have been noncommittal about rewriting an invalidated section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner said Wednesday that “a lot” of them want to do so. Sensenbrenner is the most prominent among a small number of GOP lawmakers who have urged a congressional rewrite of the statute after the Supreme Court partially struck it down in June. But that doesn’t mean other Republicans are not willing to join him in his effort, he told CQ Roll Call in an interview. “There are a lot of Republicans who are [on board], but they don’t want to be publicly named,” said Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a former Judiciary Committee chairman and architect of the 2006 compromise to reauthorize the voting law. “There’s a lot of pressure, and I’m happy to take that.” Sensenbrenner said he has “no idea” when the first legislative language of a rewrite might appear, but said “we’re going to start talking about drafts after the recess.” He and other negotiators — including two Democratic working groups in the House — will need to address two basic questions, he said.
Congress kicked off an effort to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with a series of Capitol Hill hearings this week, less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court severely weakened the law by striking down a key anti-discrimination provision. No legislation has been proposed yet. But senators and a leading representative spoke during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday about their appetite to fix the now-unconstitutional Section 4 formula, which set out when a state or local jurisdiction warrants special scrutiny before it can implement electoral changes. Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who led the House effort to reauthorize the VRA in 2006, testified that he is committed to crafting a constitutional response to the Shelby County v. Holder decision that “will last a long time.”
Congress took the first step Wednesday toward trying to repair a vital section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, a month after the Supreme Court ruled the provision unconstitutional. In a packed hearing room, witnesses told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Congress needs to put partisanship aside and work together to come up with a solution to fix the Section 4 formula, a linchpin of the act. “A bipartisan Congress and Republican presidents worked to reauthorize this law four times,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, told the Senate committee. “The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were, or will be, violated; it is the duty of Congress to restore the life and soul to the Voting Rights Act. And we must do it on our watch, at this time.”
Key lawmakers vowed Wednesday to ensure the full Voting Rights Act is restored to full strength, following the Supreme Court’s June decision to strike down part of the law. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the GOP negotiator of the law’s most recent reauthorization, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that the high court decision “severely weakened the protections both Republicans and Democrats fought hard to preserve” and that he already is working on a response to deal with the new gaps in the law. “The Voting Rights Act is the most successful of all civil rights acts in actually limiting discrimination. We cannot afford to lose it now,” the former House Judiciary chairman said. “I’m working to pass a constitutional response to the Shelby v. Holder decision.” In front of his Senate colleagues, however, Sensenbrenner conceded the challenges he faces in the GOP-controlled House. When he pushed to reauthorize the legislation in 2006, it was in part because he feared that when he surrendered his gavel to caucus-imposed term limits, his successor would not work to re-up the law. “Sometimes the difference between [the House] and the Senate is the difference between here and the moon,” Sensenbrenner said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will begin holding hearings next week on the future of the Voting Rights Act after the heart of the landmark legislation was gutted by the Supreme Court last month, Chairman Patrick Leahy said Wednesday. During the hearing, titled “From Selma to Shelby County: Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act,” senators will hear testimony on the way forward in the wake of the recent Court ruling that functionally weakened the Justice Department in its ability to block discriminatory laws before they went into effect in certain states and jurisdictions. Civil rights icon and Congressman John Lewis will testify at the hearing, Leahy said, along with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who has already signaled his willingness to move forward on new legislation designed to restore the gap left in the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court’s recent decision.
House Republicans face a political dilemma as they consider how — and whether — to rewrite the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court neutered some of its most powerful provisions last week. Failing to act would undermine the party’s efforts to reach out to minority voters and potentially prompt a backlash that drives up Democratic turnout. But passing any law that reinstates federal preclearance of voting laws in some states would face a bruising battle in Congress. Lawmakers in any affected states would be almost certain to protest a rewrite, while Democrats have an incentive to insist on the broadest possible bill. Even with the difficult politics, Republicans seem willing to try. A Republican aide familiar with negotiations said that “discussions among top Republicans and Democrats are already under way, with every intention of introducing a legislative solution,” but leadership has yet to commit to bringing a measure to the floor. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin is leading the Republican charge to rewrite his own rewrite. In 2006, it was Sensenbrenner, then-chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who worked to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act a year early, before it expired in 2007, fearing that a different Congress would not be able to pass a reauthorization.