Congress Begins Work on New Voting Rights Act Legislation

The House and Senate held hearings last week to discuss a replacement for the federal preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act, which was recently scrapped by the Supreme Court. Without a coverage formula, the Justice Department will no longer be able to enforce the VRA’s Section 5, which requires states and counties with histories of discriminatory voting practices to secure federal approval before changing their voting laws.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) set the tone for the hearings by remarking that the Voting Rights Act has always been a bipartisan effort and praised Representatives John Lewis (D-GA05) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI05) for their commitment to the legislation. Witnesses and committee members in both chambers defended the VRA’s preclearance requirement, pointing out that it is proactive, faster, and cheaper than the reactive litigation path of the still-standing Section 2.

Witnesses and committee members who oppose preclearance argued that Section 2 is sufficient and does not take too much time or money. They argued that Section 5 and the old Section 4 coverage formula intruded on state sovereignty. One witness, J. Christian Adams of the Election Law Center, went so far as to claim that racial discrimination is no longer a problem in this country, adding that it certainly doesn’t exist in the South.

Professor Spencer Overton, George Washington University Law School:

When I came into this building today, I went through a metal detector. And there wasn’t a due process violation, it was not sending me to jail, there are not metal detectors everywhere … just where there might be a problem. The metal detector is less expensive than some other security devices. It prevents problems before they occur. Pre-clearance is a reasonable device, when targeted at particular areas, to deal with problems.

Luz Urbáez Weinberg, City Commissioner, Aventura, FL:

The discriminatory practices of the 1960s which gave birth to the Voting Rights Act have gotten—what I call my 3 S’s: they have gotten extremely sneaky, extremely sophisticated, and extremely smarter.

Representative Ted Deutch (D-FL21):

Shouldn’t we recognize that voter ID laws seek to disenfranchise certain eligible voters? Not blatantly based on race, but based on requirements that have significantly and intentionally racial ramifications. Isn’t that evidence of institutionalized racism and shouldn’t that merit extra federal scrutiny and pre-clearance in those states that have passed those laws? Racism has grown more insidious in the years since the Voting Rights Act but it has not gone away. We have too much yet to do.

Those who oppose preclearance claim that racial discrimination is no longer a problem at the ballot box. But research and history tell us otherwise. Take action today – Tell Congress to save the Voting Rights Act!

PFAW