Senate panel to examine voting rights fix

Lauren Schneiderman

The Senate Judiciary Committee next week will examine legislation designed to restore the voting rights protections shot down by the Supreme Court last summer.

Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has scheduled a June 25 hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act, his bill aimed at updating those sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) deemed by the high court to be unconstitutional. 

The date marks the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder decision, which Leahy characterized as a "disastrous" threat to voting protections. He's urging lawmakers to adopt his bill ahead of November's midterm elections.

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“It is time for Congress to act,” Leahy said Monday in a statement. “Just as Congress came together 50 years ago to enact the Civil Rights Act, Democrats and Republicans should work together now to renew and strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which has always been bipartisan.  

"This year should be no different, and I hope all Republicans will work with us to enact the meaningful protections in the Voting Rights Amendment Act.”

There's been much less appetite for updating the VRA in the Republican-controlled House. Although a proposal has the vocal support of several prominent Republicans, including former Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (Wis.), GOP leaders have not said if they'll try to move legislation on the issue this year.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has expressed support for the concept, and has met this year with lawmakers and outside groups – including the NAACP and Democratic members of the Congressional Black Caucus – in an attempt to find a compromise. 

But Cantor has stopped short of endorsing the bipartisan proposal. And his primary defeat last week, which forced him to announce his resignation as majority leader effective July 31, only creates more uncertainty surrounding the fate of the legislation. 

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said last week that supporters of the VRA update are "concerned" by the absence of House hearings on the issue, but he remains hopeful that something can move – with Cantor's support.

"I’m still hopeful that Mr. Cantor will be a leader in this effort," Hoyer said. "He could be very helpful."

In its 5-4 decision last summer, the Supreme Court struck down the “coverage formula” at the heart of the voting rights law, which required certain states to get federal approval before changing their election procedures. 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 argued that the formula used is outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

Roberts left intact Washington's authority to monitor elections for fairness, but he emphasized that lawmakers would have to enact updated legislation to determine which locales, if any, require the extra layer of monitoring.

"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."

The ruling has had immediate practical implications, as a number of conservative states – including Texas, North Carolina and Alabama – have since adopted stricter voting requirements that had been on hold under the old law.