Lawmakers Lewis, Sensenbrenner urge Congress to restore Voting Rights Act

A liberal civil rights hero and a conservative Wisconsin Republican joined forces Wednesday in an uphill fight to restore the voting protections shot down last month by the Supreme Court.

Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) urged a Senate panel to bury partisan differences and update the Voting Rights Act, a 48-year-old law designed to protect voter access in states with histories of racial discrimination.

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"The responsibility to combat racial discrimination in electoral practices is one of the most important constitutional duties of Congress," Lewis told members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were, or will be, violated."

Sensenbrenner echoed that message. He characterized the VRA as the single most successful anti-discrimination law of the last half-century, and warned that a failure of Congress to act would "undermine the progress that has been made over the last 50 years."

"Free, fair, and accessible elections are sacrosanct, and the right of every legal voter to cast their ballot must be unassailable," he testified. "Voter discrimination still exists, and our progress toward equality should not be mistaken for a final victory."

Enacted at the height of the Civil Rights movement, the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires 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 pre-clearance is decades old.

The Supreme Court made waves last month when it ruled 5-4 that the formula – contained in Section 4 of the law – is outdated and therefore unconstitutional.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 pre-clearance powers. But without a formula determining which regions are covered, those powers are effectively nullified.

Sensenbrenner, who headed the Judiciary panel during the 2006 VRA reauthorization, minced no words Wednesday in his criticism of the court. He said Roberts and the conservative majority "essentially disregarded years and years of congressional work" and "substituted [their] own judgment."

Roberts invited Congress to "draft another formula based on current conditions." Lewis and Sensenbrenner are fighting to do just that.

It won't be easy, as enacting a new formula will require bipartisan agreement about which states are most prone to discrimination against minorities – no simple lift in a Congress fiercely divided by partisan tensions.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday hinted at the tough fight to come.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), for instance, said he agrees with the Supreme Court's decision that the formula needs updating and suggested that warnings of modern-day voter discrimination are overblown.

"We last voted to reauthorize the Act in 2006. Much has changed since then," said Grassley, senior Republican on the panel. "The voter turnout rate was higher last year among registered African-American voters than for whites. More African-American and Hispanic candidates than ever are winning elections. The Supreme Court has found these facts to be of constitutional significance."

But Grassley also pushed back hard against the notion that Republicans aren't interested in updating the formula, and he went after Democrats who have suggested as much even before legislation has emerged.

"Rather than blaming Republicans for blocking a bill that does not exist, the majority should bring forth a proposal for updating the coverage formula in a constitutional way," he said. "We could cover the whole country."

But Democrats on the committee warned that the absence of federal pre-clearance protections would allow states to push through tougher election rules – things like voter ID and proof-and-citizenship requirements – designed to disenfranchise poor voters.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) told the story of visiting voting officials of both parties in Florida and Ohio. When asked what evidence of fraud prompted those states to pass tougher voting rules, Durbin said the universal response was, "None."

"These changes took place in the context of reducing opportunities for people to vote," Durbin charged. "Period."

The discussion continues Thursday in the House, where the Judiciary Committee's subpanel on the Constitution meets to examine the Supreme Count's VRA decision.

This story was posted at 2:56 p.m. and updated at 6:11 p.m. and 7:09 p.m.