Clock ticking on fix to Voting Rights Act


This is the first in a four-part, weekly series on voting in America.

Time is running out for Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court last year struck down major parts of the voting law, and a bipartisan fix has stalled in Congress.

The justices ruled that the formula used to designate which parts of the country must face heightened federal voting clearances was outdated and unconstitutional.

New legislation, introduced earlier this year, seeks to update the procedures.

Advocates believe the bill will pass both chambers of Congress if it is brought up to a vote, but that looks unlikely. In the House, conservative Republicans, especially those from Southern states that are singled out for the extra scrutiny, are skeptical of the measure Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) hammered out with House and Senate Democrats.

If the bill were signed into law soon, it would be in effect for this November’s elections.

Some Democrats are unhappy with compromises struck to win GOP support related to voter identification. Others on the left are concerned with the scope of the bill. Previously, nine states with histories of voter discrimination were required to get federal approval before they changed their election procedures. Under the new plan, only four states would be forced to seek such approval.

Still, most Democrats would back the bill if it comes up for a vote. A number of senior Democrats, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, are on board.

The House legislation has 22 co-sponsors, including Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Scott Peters (D-Calif.).

The big question is whether House GOP leadership is willing to bring the bill to a floor vote if a large number of Republicans plan to defect.

“The process is similar to immigration,” a Republican House leadership aide told The Hill. “There’s no real discussion on scheduling floor time at this point … we’re working with members to address concerns.”

In a major concession to House Republicans, Democrats agreed to add exemptions for the state voter identification laws the Justice Department has been zealously fighting, a move that frustrated some civil rights groups, including the NAACP. Sensenbrenner told The Hill late last year he was working closely with DOJ on his measure. While the department has said the law is constitutional, the Obama administration hasn’t thrown its support behind the bill. Republicans say the DOJ’s silence could actually help the bill’s prospects because some conservatives would oppose anything Holder supported.

Sensenbrenner, who helped pass the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act through the House with 390 votes, is pushing hard for the House Judiciary Committee to move his bill.

The Wisconsin Republican, a former chairman of the Judiciary panel, has been in close contact with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who has expressed desire to fix the law. But Cantor has stopped short of endorsing the bill. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn (S.C.) are also heavily involved in the talks. 

“The fact is, the leadership has been overwhelmed with other issues. I have every confidence that the House and Senate will pass this bill before the year is out,” Sensenbrenner told The Hill.

He said the legislation may succeed or fail depending on what Cantor and GOP leadership decides to do.

“He controls the floor; everybody knows that,” he said.

Cantor’s office has not laid out a timeline to bring the bill to a vote.

“We still want to try to get something on it, but there are objections on both sides, and we’re talking to folks to see what can be worked out,” Cantor deputy chief of staff Doug Heye said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), whose panel has jurisdiction on the bill, remains tight-lipped about timing as well. His office refused to say when, or if, the committee will mark it up.

“I fully support protecting the voting rights of all Americans. As Congress determines whether additional steps are needed to protect those rights, I will carefully consider legislative proposals addressing the issue,” he said in a statement to The Hill.

While Republicans say specific issues are being hammered out, they refused to comment on what legislative sticking points exist, a sign GOP members are resistant to the bill conceptually and not just to details of it.

They’ll have to do a lot of work to win over conservative lawmakers who have yet to review the bill and are dubious about how pressing the issue is. Many also don’t trust Attorney General Eric Holder, with some seeing the law as a political cudgel for Democrats to turn out their base.

“The biggest problem we’ve run into is people double- and triple-voting, and that’s happening everywhere, and that’s the reason why we need to have photo ID [laws]. That’s the problem. In terms of discrimination, someone being coerced not to vote or show up, I’m not aware of any evidence that’s a problem. I think photo ID is a much more pressing issue than these kind of questions,” Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) said.

Rep. Kenny Marchant (R-Texas) voted for the law’s reauthorization in 2006, but says he won’t again.

“Back at home, my constituency has shifted significantly and does not believe Texas should be singled out. They believe elections are being done properly. They believe redistricting is being done properly. They don’t have the same concerns they did eight or nine years ago when I voted for it,” he said.

With a tight legislative calendar in an election year, supporters of the bill admit that time is an obstacle.

“We’re certainly in a cautious period where every day counts and it’s important that we take advantage of the calendar days to get things done and move the bill forward,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, the Brennan Center for Justice’s Washington director, who has been meeting with Republican members to try to win support for the bill.

While Democrats are remaining publicly optimistic, they’re getting impatient.

“Time is of the essence for Congress to take action to restore critical protections for minorities, seniors, and students, and the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act serves as an important first step toward achieving that goal,” Hoyer said in a statement to The Hill.

“I’ve had positive conversations with Majority Leader Cantor and remain hopeful that House Republicans will schedule consideration of this important bill soon so that we can provide reassurance to all Americans that their right to vote will be protected this November and for years to come.”

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