Access to the polls has not always been assured for all Americans, and before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many were subjected to so-called literacy tests and poll tax. The law was created to tackle such injustices, but in June, the Supreme Court struck a key provision of the legislation. Section 4 established a formula determining which states and localities had to get federal approval (known as pre-clearance) before changing their voting procedures. The provision applied to nine states, mainly in the South, with a history of voter discrimination. The court deemed it unconstitutional for relying on old data. It is now up to Congress to figure out where the Voting Rights Act goes from here. Both the House and Senate held hearings this past week.
One of the first questions in these hearings was the threshold question, says NPR congressional correspondent Ailsa Chang. In other words: Do we even need Section 4, or can we rely on some other provision of the law? One of those other provisions might be Section 2.
“[It] allows people to bring lawsuits after voting changes have been made,” Chang tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden. “But critics of that provision say litigation isn’t a substitute [for Section 4].”
If, instead, Congress decides to write an updated formula for Section 4, it has quite a challenge ahead.
“Congress has to figure out what newer data would point to places where there is so much voter discrimination, those places need continual scrutiny,” Chang says.
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Chang says this will likely be a very slow process, since Congress acts slowly in general and because this legislation could potentially affect elections. Right now, Senate Democrats feel pretty strongly about restoring Section 4. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor says he wants to wants to ensure voting rights are protected, but what form that desire takes is unclear.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin isn’t optimistic: “I understand the challenge from the Supreme Court, but in this political climate on Capitol Hill, what was once a very popular bipartisan issue is now, I’m afraid, divided on party lines.”