House Republican Urges Voting-Rights Fix Before ElectionsMichael C. Bender
A House Republican lawmaker said the Supreme Court’s decision rolling back a core part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act “severely weakened” balloting protections and urged Congress to rewrite the provision before the 2014 elections.
Representative James Sensenbrenner told the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington yesterday that the majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, ignored provisions in the law that allow state and local governments to escape oversight if they comply with anti-discrimination rules.
The fact that voting jurisdictions targeted by the law haven’t qualified for that provision “is evidence that the VRA’s extraordinary measures are still necessary,” said Sensenbrenner, 70. He was House Judiciary Committee chairman when Congress reauthorized the law in 2006.
“Voter discrimination still exists, and our progress toward equality should not be mistaken for a final victory,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
The hearing on the Voting Rights Act was the first by the Judiciary Committee since the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling on June 25 invalidated the formula for determining which states need federal approval before changing election rules.
The court said Congress lacked grounds for requiring some states, and not others, to obtain federal approval. Roberts’s majority opinion said Congress may create a new formula based on current voting conditions in specific jurisdictions.
Less than 16 months from the 2014 midterm elections, little consensus has developed between the Democratic majority in the Senate and the Republican-controlled House on revising the landmark civil-rights law. It has been used to halt thousands of state and local voting changes, including voter-identification laws in Texas and South Carolina last year.
“No one’s right to vote in any part of this great nation should be suppressed or denied, but yet we continue to see that discriminatory practice today,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat.
Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel, urged Democrats to propose a remedy to the court’s ruling.
“We could cover the whole country,” Grassley said. “We could identify jurisdictions engaging in discrimination in the 21st century.” On the day of the court’s ruling, he said the law was no longer necessary because states covered by it “don’t have discriminatory voting any more.”
President Barack Obama said after the ruling that he was “deeply disappointed” and called on Congress “to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls.”
While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, promised after the decision that the Senate “will act,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio told reporters after the ruling that he was “reviewing the decision.”
The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold its first hearing on the Voting Rights Act today. Sensenbrenner, who said he’ll also testify in the House, called on Congress to fix the court’s ruling before the next election.
“We have to have the protections of the Voting Rights Act,” he said.
Under the preclearance requirement, all or parts of 15 states were required to have federal approval before changing election districts, amending voting rules or moving a polling place. The Justice Department used that provision, which covered virtually the entire South, to object to more than 2,400 state and local voting changes from 1982 to 2006.
The Voting Rights Act was enacted to combat discrimination that kept black people away from Southern polling places for generations. A separate section of the law bars voting discrimination nationwide and isn’t affected by the ruling.
“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote for the court.
Michael Carvin, an attorney who defended Florida Governor Rick Scott’s plan to purge non-citizens from the voting rolls, told the committee that Roberts’s opinion was a “very important step in protecting individual liberty.” He said minority voting rights were protected by other provisions in the Voting Rights Act and that lawmakers would be “wise to wait and evaluate” whether another law is needed.
Luz Urbaez Weinberg, a Republican commissioner in Aventura, Florida, told the committee that federal voting regulations must be tougher to catch instances of voter suppression that have become “extremely sneaky, extremely sophisticated and extremely smarter” since the 1960s.
“I’m very scared as an elected official for my constituents,” she said.