Bill would revive the Voting Rights Act

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday that would restore the voting protections shot down by the Supreme Court last year.

Sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the proposal attempts to ensure voters' rights by requiring certain regions with a recent history of racial discrimination to secure federal approval before changing their election rules.

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The bill would reduce the number of states requiring federal pre-clearance from nine to four, leaving Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia still covered under that provision of the old law.

Leahy said the proposal to update the historic Voting Rights Act (VRA) strikes a delicate balance between safeguarding constitutional rights and providing states the freedom to enact tougher laws to fight abuse at the polls.

"The modernized VRA is constitutional and bipartisan. It includes strong, nationwide anti-discrimination protections and continues to permit states to enact reasonable voter ID laws," Leahy said. "Therefore, it prevents racial-discrimination and gives states the ability to address voter fraud."

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 pre-clearance from Washington before altering their election procedures.

Election violations that a court rules are discriminatory would be counted toward the five-violation tally, but a court would not have the power to "bail-in" states that aren't already covered based solely on a discriminatory voter ID ruling.

Additionally, while most objections by state attorneys general to election-related procedures would count toward the five-violation rule, any such objections related to voter ID laws would be exempt.

"It is not a perfect bill," Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said. But it is "a good compromise."

In a sign that Democrats will likely sign on, House House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed the bill Thursday morning.

"While it's not the bill that everyone will love, it is bipartisan, it is progress and it is worthy of support," she said.

Still, the proposal has a difficult road ahead, as it essentially aims to identify which parts of the country are most likely to discriminate against minorities at the polls — a charged political question that's certain to incite a spirited fight in an already fractured Congress.

Republicans have shown little interest in reviving the VRA. Critics say that's because restoring the protections would likely lead to greater election-year participation by black and other minority voters, who tend to support Democrats.

Indeed, Sensenbrenner has been the anomaly in his party for his vocal support of a legislative response to the Supreme Court's ruling.

While House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had been a part of the discussions on the issue late last year, he has stopped short of endorsing the notion that legislation is required in response to the Supreme Court decision.

Cantor spokesman Douglas Heye declined to weigh in Thursday, saying only that, "We look forward to reviewing the bill."

The proposal is also taking some heat from the left, as some civil rights groups are already grumbling that the new coverage formula gives some states with tough new voting laws a free pass.

Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, criticized the bill Thursday for excluding North Carolina, which erected several new hurdles to voting in recent years, including a strict voter ID law and the elimination of same-day registration.

“The exclusion of North Carolina is especially egregious, considering the flood of harmful voting policies from the state,” Hair said.

Still, the group is endorsing the package.

The reduction in the number of states requiring federal pre-clearance could sweeten the pot and make it easier for skeptical lawmakers to get on board.

The other Republicans sponsoring the bill are Reps. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and Sean Duffy (R-Wis.).

Characterizing the VRA as "one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed," Sensenbrenner acknowledged both the political and constitutional challenges facing the lawmakers as they drafted their bill. But, he said, "I think we have threaded that needle.

"Now," he added, "is the time for Congress to take action so that this bill can be law before the election."

In a 5-4 decision last June, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which required a number of states with a history of racial discrimination to get Washington's approval before changing their voting rules. The law was last reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2006, when Sensenbrenner headed the Judiciary Committee, but the formula dictating which states are subject to extra scrutiny is decades old.

Behind Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court's conservative majority found that the formula dictating which states are subject to the extra hurdles — defined by Section 4 of the law — is outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

"Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices," Roberts wrote. "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."

The Court did not invalidate Section 5 of the law, which empowers the federal government to require pre-clearance of voting changes for certain states and localities. But without a formula to determine which regions are subject to the extra scrutiny, Section 5 was effectively neutered.

Roberts invited Congress to "draft another formula based on current conditions."

The bill introduced Thursday attempts to do just that.

— This story was updated on Jan. 17 to clarify what counts as an election violation under a bill. The story was also corrected to reflect that Reps. Steve Chabot and Sean Duffy are  co-sponsors.

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