GOP's Eric Cantor is Dems' unlikely ally on Voting Rights Act

House Democrats hoping to restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA) have an unlikely ally in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

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While other GOP leaders have shown little enthusiasm for replacing the anti-discrimination protections the Supreme Court snipped this summer from the landmark civil rights law, Cantor is already talking to prominent Democrats about doing just that.

"We've had a one-on-one; it went very well," Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) told The Hill last Friday, as Congress was leaving town for a five-week recess.

Asked if Cantor is eyeing a legislative fix that would satisfy Democrats, Lewis didn't hesitate.

"Yes, yes, by all means," he said.

"We think there's a possibility we can do something in a bipartisan fashion. So it won't be Democrats going alone and Republicans [separately]. We're going to go together," added Lewis, an icon of the civil rights movement. "That's what we did in 2006, and we'll do it again."

Cantor, a staunch conservative who spars regularly with Democratic leaders over the size and reach of the federal government, might seem an improbable voice for strengthening Washington's oversight of state and local elections. But a March trip with Lewis to Selma, Ala., site of a watershed civil rights march in 1965, left an impression on the Virginia Republican, who described it as "a profound experience" illustrating "the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all."

"I'm hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected," Cantor said in June, responding to the court's ruling.

He has a difficult climb ahead, as the court has essentially asked lawmakers to identify which parts of the country are most likely to discriminate against minorities at the polls — a prickly political question that's certain to inspire a raucous battle in an already fractured House.

Additionally, the majority of Republicans have very little political incentive to bolster the VRA, as restoring the protections would likely lead to greater election-year participation by black and other minority voters, who tend to support Democrats.

Perhaps with those dynamics in mind, Cantor has been careful not to trumpet his calls for a legislative response to the court's decision. His June statement, for instance, was sent to inquiring reporters but does not appear on the majority leader's website. And since then, Cantor has fallen publicly silent on the topic.

His office declined to comment this week on what, precisely, Cantor wants Congress to do to ensure such protections are in place.

"All I can tell you at this point is that Majority Leader Cantor continues to meet with members on both sides of the aisle in the hopes of finding a positive path forward," spokesman Doug Heye said Tuesday in an email.

The most resistance will come from Cantor's side of the aisle. Indeed, excepting a handful of Republicans, including Cantor, Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.) and Rep. Steve Chabot (Ohio), GOP lawmakers have shown little interest in replacing the VRA protections undone by the high court.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), for instance, has made only vague statements about "reviewing this decision" in search of "the proper steps forward." And House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has suggested that the court left enough of the VRA intact to protect voting rights nationwide without congressional action.

"It’s important to note that under the Supreme Court’s decision … other very important provisions of the Voting Rights Act remain in place," Goodlatte said during a Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue last month.

In its 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court struck down the coverage formula governing the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had 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 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 VRA.

Supporters of the tougher laws, which include new photo ID and proof-of-citizenship requirements, say they're necessary to fight voter fraud and ensure the integrity of the election process. Critics counter that problems of fraud are exaggerated, and the tougher rules are just a Republican gambit to discourage minority voters from going to the polls.

How Congress approaches the issue has yet to be seen. Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus are eyeing legislation not only to rewrite the coverage formula but also to make it easier for judges to expand federal protections to other parts of the country in response to individual discrimination lawsuits — an attempt to bolster the very provisions Goodlatte said were ample.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has tapped Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to lead the Democrats' effort to restore the VRA protections. Pelosi met with Clyburn's working group last month, and staff will continue the talks through August.

Lewis said no legislation has been written yet — "just discussions" and "ongoing meetings" — but the lawmakers will be looking to move quickly when Congress returns to Washington next month. 

"We're looking at September when we get back, but people will be talking to each other [over recess]," he said.

Congress returns from its summer break on Sept. 9.

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