Congress Split Leaves Voting Rights Law Future Uncertain

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to reject a central element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act issued an open invitation to Congress to revise the law.

Still, there’s little chance the current Congress -- divided along partisan lines and polarized to the point of dysfunction -- will muster a consensus to do so.

That leaves uncertain the future of the landmark civil-rights era statute that offers protection against racial and other forms of discrimination in voting even as the changing face of the U.S. electorate has raised the stakes in the debate over such safeguards.

As civil rights groups denounced the ruling as a step backward in the push for racial equality in the U.S., President Barack Obama said he was “deeply disappointed” about the decision and called on Congress “to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”

Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would take “immediate action” on the issue, telling lawmakers he would schedule a hearing next month.

Some of his Democratic colleagues held out little hope that the effort would succeed.

“As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance,” said Senator Charles Schumer of New York, referring to the law’s requirement that the Justice Department must approve any proposed change in voting rules in some states.

Antiquated Rules

At the same time, even as prominent Republican officials were publicly mum on the decision, many lawmakers in Washington and across the country made clear they viewed it as a victory over unfair and antiquated rules. At least one state announced plans to push through voting rules that had been deemed impermissible under the invalidated part of the law.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said he would go ahead with implementation of a law, previously blocked by the Justice Department and a federal court on the grounds it could lead to racial disenfranchisement, which requires voters to show photo identification when registering to vote.

The Voting Rights Act is “producing very positive results in places like Texas, where our record of minority voting participation is actually much better than in states that aren’t covered by the preclearance requirements,” said the state’s senior U.S. senator, John Cornyn. He said Congress should update the law’s criteria.

‘Not Necessary’

Other Republicans said they don’t see the need for a legislative response in light of a ruling they maintained shows the nation has moved beyond the history of racial discrimination that inspired the law.

“It proves that after 45 years, that the Voting Rights Act is working,” Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview. “In other words, the situation in those states that were covered in the act, they don’t have discriminatory voting anymore, so the act is not necessary.”

Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College in California, said the ruling hands Democrats a potent issue for energizing minority voters, who see it as a blow against civil rights, while leaving Republicans working to reach out to those groups with a dilemma.

‘A Bind’

“Republicans are in a bind,” said Pitney, a former strategist for the party. “On the one hand, they want to reach out to minority voters; on the other, this particular section of the Voting Rights Act is extremely unpopular among a lot of Republican elected officials.”

In a 5-4 vote, the court’s majority of Republican-appointed justices said Congress lacked grounds for requiring some states, and not others, to obtain federal approval before changing their election rules. The ruling blocks a tool the Justice Department has used to halt thousands of state and local changes, including the voter-ID laws in Texas and South Carolina last year.

Congress may act to update the rules based on current voting conditions in specific jurisdictions, according to the majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts.

Advancing legislation through Congress would be difficult, and has the potential to ignite a racially charged debate. In a signal of just how divided the two parties are on the sensitive topic, in the hours following the ruling’s release yesterday, the top Democratic congressional leaders and their party chairman had issued statements denouncing it, while their Republican counterparts didn’t.

Different Place

“America is very different today from what it was in the 1960s,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, when asked about the decision. He said he would have to read the ruling before weighing in further.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, who controls scheduling of legislation in the chamber, said in an e-mailed statement last night that he is “hopeful Congress will put politics aside” to “find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”

Still, rank-and-file Republicans -- particularly those in states currently covered by preclearance -- made it clear they were pleased the enforcement formula had been struck down.

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the state where the case initiated, said almost 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was enacted, “you go to Alabama, you go to Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the right to vote because of the color of their skin.”

Discrimination History

The coverage formula was designed to include the states with the deepest history of discrimination -- Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. Three other states -- Alaska, Arizona and Texas -- were added in the 1970s when the statute was expanded to protect “language minority” groups, including Hispanics.

Frank “Butch” Ellis, an attorney in Shelby County, Alabama, who challenged sections of the Voting Rights Act, said the ruling will make an immense difference to the thousands of jurisdictions that previously had to obtain preclearance for even the smallest changes to voting rules.

“We’re elated,” he said from his office in Columbiana, the county seat. “If you’re imposing on sovereign states and cities and counties this burden -- this extraordinary burden and departure from federalism -- you’ve got to have current justification, not justification that’s 50 years old.”

Black Turnout

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2012 was the first time the black voter turnout rate exceeded that for white voters. While Hispanic turnout lagged both those groups substantially, those voters comprised 8.4 percent of the electorate, up from 7.4 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Obama won the group’s votes by 44 percentage points over Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Nina Perales, director of the voting rights program at the Washington-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said about a third of Hispanic voters live in areas covered by the invalidated formula.

“What we’re looking at is this next wave of vote-suppression measures, trying to stop the change in the face of the electorate, trying to stop growth in the electorate by suppressing voter registration and casting of ballots,” she said.

David Wasserman, a specialist on U.S. House campaigns at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, said the ruling probably won’t spur wholesale redrawing of congressional districts though it could clear the way for measures governing voter identification, early voting and local polling places.

Minority Voters

Republicans run the risk of energizing minority voters to vote for the other party if officials at the state level are emboldened by the decision to press stricter rules, as happened in Pennsylvania last year.

“In 2012, they gave African Americans in Pennsylvania every reason to be fired up, and I think we may see the same trend across the South if legislatures choose to ram voter ID and early voting laws through,” Wasserman said.

J. Mitchell Pickerill, an associate professor of political science at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb who studies the scope of Supreme Court rulings, said the narrow nature of the voting rights decision probably will spur a congressional response -- eventually.

“The decision’s a little bit clever -- it quite clearly shows deference to Congress, but Roberts is well aware that the current Congress is not likely to take this up,” Pickerill said. Meanwhile, he said, the two parties are likely to continue feuding over voting in election cycles to come.

“Republicans are scrambling to figure out their own coalition and what it will look like given the changing demographics,” he said. “Democrats are trying to determine how to take advantage of the coalition that Obama brought together but still has not solidified, so it complicates the picture.”

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