Top Dem presses GOP on voting rights

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Saying voter discrimination “has not gone away,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer called on GOP leaders Tuesday to update the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The Maryland Democrat said the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision eliminating central provisions of the law “clearly undermined the protections of the right to vote in this country” and urged Republicans to replace those provisions this year.

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“The majority of the court was simply wrong,” Hoyer said during a press briefing in the Capitol. “Something that had helped solve the problem, and made sure it didn't reoccur, was jettisoned.”

Republican leaders have shown little interest in the issue. And last week, Rep. Bob GoodlatteBob GoodlatteCongress leaving for seven-week recess Bipartisan House group to work on police issues House conservatives 'committed' to impeaching IRS chief MORE (R-Va.), head of the House Judiciary Committee, said congressional reforms are unnecessary because “substantial” parts of the VRA remain intact.

“To this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary because we believe the Voting Rights Act provided substantial protection in this area,” he said Wednesday during a breakfast in Washington sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor.

Hoyer strongly disagreed, arguing that new state laws allowed after the Shelby County vs. Holder decision — including shorter registration periods and tougher ID standards — are proof that voter protections are under fire in some parts of the country. 

“If he [Goodlatte] has hearings, he's going to find out that there are very, very substantial ongoing efforts [to erode voting protections],” Hoyer said. “In fact, once Shelby passed, immediately a number of jurisdictions, particularly in the South, moved to … impose greater restrictions on voting access.”

Enacted at the height of the civil rights movement, the landmark Voting Rights Act required certain states and districts with documented records of racial discrimination to get Washington's approval before changing their voting rules. Congress last reauthorized the law in 2006 with broad bipartisan support, but the formula dictating which states require federal preclearance is decades old.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the formula, contained in Section 4 of the law, is outdated and therefore unconstitutional. 

“Coverage today is based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority. “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 overturn Section 5, which grants the federal government its preclearance authority. But without a formula determining which regions are covered, those powers are effectively nullified.

Hoyer on Tuesday acknowledged that the law still allows for lawsuits when voters feel they've been wronged. But by then, he warned, the damage may already be done.

“The problem with Mr. Goodlatte's proposition that there's still substantial authorities within the Voting Rights Act — there are, but many of them are post-violation,” Hoyer said. “So the horse is out of the barn. 

“You can go to court and try to get the horse back in the barn,” he added, “But the election may be over and the discrimination may have had its effect.”