Dems call on GOP to move voting rights bill

House Democrats are amping up their pressure on GOP leaders to move on legislation to restore voting rights protections shot down by the Supreme Court last year.

In a March 27 letter, Democratic leaders noted that the high court's ruling "acknowledged the persistence of voter discrimination," and they urged the Republicans to take up a bipartisan proposal, designed to counteract such prejudices, before November's elections.

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"Some of us believe the bill should be enacted in its current form, and some of us would prefer to see it amended," the Democrats wrote to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). "But all of us stand united in our desire for the House to consider the issue in time for the entire Congress to work its will before the August district work period."

Spearheaded by Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, the letter was endorsed by 160 Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.), caucus Vice Chairman Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the ranking member of the Judiciary panel, and Rep. John Dingell (Mich.), the House dean.

GOP leaders have not said if they'll try to move legislation on the issue this year.

Cantor, who's been most vocal on the topic, has been meeting behind the scenes with lawmakers and outside groups — including the NAACP and Democratic Reps. John Lewis (Ga.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) and Terri Sewell (Ala.) — in an attempt to alleviate concerns surrounding the bill, his office said Friday. But he's stopped short of endorsing the proposal and has given no indication Republicans intend to move such legislation before the elections.

"The Majority Leader believes this is an important issue and wants to make sure we preserve every American's right to vote," Cantor spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said in an email. "Right now, there are still concerns on all sides of the issue on exactly the right path forward, but we are hopeful we can find consensus."

Goodlatte issued a similar statement Friday. 

"I fully support protecting the voting rights of all Americans," he said in an email. "As Congress determines whether additional steps are needed to protect those rights, I will carefully consider legislative proposals addressing the issue."

Boehner last year said he's interested in finding "the proper steps forward," but he's said little on the topic since then. His office did not immediately respond Friday to requests for comment.

In its 5-4 decision in June, the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act's (VRA) decades-old coverage formula, which had required certain states to get federal approval before changing election rules. The law had applied on a blanket basis to nine states, most of them in the South, with documented histories of racial discrimination.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said, while Congress has the authority to monitor elections for fairness, the coverage formula is outdated and, therefore, unconstitutional. 

"Our country has changed," Roberts wrote, "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."

In January, lawmakers in both the House and Senate introduced legislation designed to do just that. Under the bill, states with five violations of constitutional voting protections or federal voting laws over the last 15 years would be forced to get preclearance from Washington before altering their election procedures. 

The revised language would have the immediate effect of reducing the number of states requiring preclearance from nine to four, although regions subject to the extra scrutiny could be added and subtracted under the bill's fluid coverage formula.

The House bill is sponsored by Reps. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and Conyers. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has introduced companion legislation in the upper chamber.

The House Democratic supporters made clear this week that the lower chamber represents the highest hurdle to enacting an updated VRA.

"We are confident that a bipartisan bill passed by the House would be swiftly passed by the Senate and signed into law by the President," they wrote. 

"While we differ in our views on the ideal response to [the Supreme Court decision], we all hope to join you in building on the bipartisan agreement that has been reached to ensure that, as President Ronald Reagan said, ‘no barrier will come between our citizens and the voting booth.’ ”