Congress should vote for the right to vote

It’s hard to believe. In our sixth year with an African-American president, one-half century after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the bloody “Freedom Summer” of 1964, some Americans are still being denied the right to vote or facing government-erected obstacles to their exercise of the right on account of their race.

Some states have adopted voter ID laws imposing unneeded requirements that tens of thousands of qualified voters can’t meet. Some have shortened voting hours or eliminated “early voting” days intended to accommodate people who’ll be out of town or can’t get away from their jobs on Election Day. Some persist in using outmoded, prone-to-malfunction voting machines that force would-be voters to stand in line for hours in order to cast their ballots.

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Those of us who were around 50 years ago this week, when the landmark civil rights law was passed, knew it wouldn’t be easy for the country to overcome its long, shameful history of discrimination. We were sad, but not surprised, when the hundreds of college kids who went south in that summer of ‘64 to work for civil rights were beaten and spat upon -- and in three cases murdered.

But we also had plenty of reason for hope, including the presence of a strong, bipartisan coalition in Congress in support of civil rights, and voting rights laws in particular. Where today’s Congress is all but paralyzed by partisanship, Capitol Hill in 1964 was a place where Democrats and Republicans often found ways to compromise on behalf of the public interest.

There is a chance this week to advance the difficult work of recapturing that spirit, and a new struggle for voting rights provides it.

The Voting Rights Amendment Act, scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee, has been carefully crafted by a bipartisan group of lawmakers to address the damage done to voting rights law by last year’s Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The bill’s sponsors and most prominent backers are two former chairs of the House Judiciary Committee, Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan and Republican Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, and the current chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

Their bill recognizes that preserving and strengthening the right to vote is fundamental to the health of our democracy. It faces squarely the truth of Chief Justice Roberts’ observation in the majority opinion in Shelby that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.”

The bill would expand the Justice Department’s ability to monitor polls across the country and strengthen public notice requirements for states that make changes to voting laws within 180 days of an election. It also would freeze discriminatory voting changes before implementation in jurisdictions with a recent history of voting rights violations.

Its drafters acknowledge the bill isn’t perfect, but they’ve put old differences aside to move it and the country forward. Wednesday’s scheduled Senate hearing, on the first anniversary of the Shelby ruling, breaks a legislative logjam; the bill’s backers intended to move first in the House, but the House Judiciary Committee has refused to even schedule a hearing.

Now, with the Senate hearing, the case for the bill should come into sharper focus, increasing the pressure on House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte to take action. And in the surprising defeat in a primary two weeks ago of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-VA, there is an unexpected and unconventional opportunity for real progress.

Cantor was alone among House GOP leaders in vowing after the Shelby decision to find “a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.” The VRAA opens that path; Cantor would do his party and the country a service and leave a legacy worth remembering if he spent his final month as majority leader making good on his words.

Rapoport is president of Common Cause.

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