Judiciary Dems seek hearing on voting rights
© Greg Nash

Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are pressing GOP leaders for a hearing to address their growing concerns over the erosion of voting rights.

Behind Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThis week: Congress set for clash on Trump's border request Congress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE (D-Vt.), the ranking member of the panel, the lawmakers are warning top Republicans that the Supreme Court's 2013 decision dismantling part of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) threatens a wave of discrimination at the polls in November.

In a letter sent Friday to Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley raises concerns about objectivity of report critical of GOP tax law's effects Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Key Trump proposal to lower drug prices takes step forward MORE (R-Iowa) and Sen. John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats give Trump trade chief high marks GOP senators divided over approach to election security GOP lawmakers want Mulvaney sidelined in budget talks MORE (R-Texas), head of the committee's Constitution subpanel, the Democrats called for a hearing "without further delay" to study the potential roadblocks facing voters this year, particularly in states that have enacted tougher voting laws since the Supreme Court ruling.


Some of those new laws, the Democrats contend, "disproportionately prevent or discourage minorities from voting."

"This year will be the first presidential election during which voters will be without the full protection of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 since its original passage," the Democrats wrote.

"Congress must restore the Voting Rights Act, and as the committee of jurisdiction, it is our responsibility to lead that process."

At issue is a section of the VRA — a landmark of the Civil Rights era — that had required certain states with documented histories of race-based discrimination to get federal approval before changing their voting rules.

In its 5-4 ruling three years ago, the Supreme Court found that, while the federal government has the power to oversee elections for the sake of fighting discrimination, the formula underlying the "pre-clearance" requirement was outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts invited Congress to update the coverage formula, but Republican leaders in both chambers have declined to move on legislation. They argue the VRA provisions left intact by the court provide voters with ample protections.

Among those voices is Grassley, who responded last year to a similar Democratic push by saying, “Voting discrimination remains illegal after the Supreme Court’s ruling, and cases are still being brought under separate sections of the Voting Rights Act."

His committee hasn't acted, Grassley added, largely because "there is no consensus on how to move forward.”

Grassley's office reiterated that message on Monday.

“The Voting Rights Act remains in effect and is being used to protect against discrimination, just as it was enacted to do," spokeswoman Beth Levine said in an email. "The committee has held a number of hearings on the VRA over the last few years, none of which made the case for new legislation. In fact, the Democrats failed to even attempt to mark-up any bill in the last Congress.”

In the wake of the court decision, a number of states — almost all of them Republican-run — quickly adopted tougher voting laws, including new photo ID requirements, shorter windows for early voting and the elimination of same-day registration.

Supporters of those efforts say they're common-sense measures to fight voter fraud. Critics argue they're designed to discourage voting, particularly among low-income groups, minorities and students, who tend to side with the Democrats.

"Photo ID laws mostly harm those who do not have the resources to readily obtain the required identification," the Democrats wrote Friday. "[T]hese barriers impact all of us, Republicans and Democrats alike. There are often a variety of legitimate reasons why an individual does not have a photo ID — and laws should not be enacted when they disproportionately impact a certain segment of the population."

In their letter, Leahy and the Democrats sought to bolster their argument by pointing to problems that have popped up at the polls during the primary season, including hours-long lines in parts of Arizona that resulted from a vast cutback in polling stations. Arizona was among the states requiring approval prior to 2013.

Leahy and the Democrats, joined by a handful of Republicans from both chambers, are pushing legislation to update the pre-clearance coverage formula based on more recent cases of documented discrimination. That legislation, they argue, should at least get a public airing on Capitol Hill.

"A hearing would explore the need for this legislation, as well as what we should be doing to protect every American's right to vote," the Democrats wrote.

The Democrats are also going after Grassley and Cornyn for refusing to hold a hearing on Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

"[I]n doing so, [Republicans] have claimed that they are giving the American people a voice," the Democrats wrote. "It is ironic that Senate Republicans would claim to give the American people a voice, but at the same time allow sweeping voting restrictions to be enacted that would silence many of these Americans — a disproportionate number of whom are minorities."

The other Judiciary Democrats endorsing the letter were Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinYoung activists press for change in 2020 election The Hill's Morning Report — US strikes approved against Iran pulled back Democrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks MORE (Calif.), Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerMcConnell-backed Super PAC says nominating Roy Moore would be 'gift wrapping' seat to Dems McConnell vows to 'vigorously' oppose Moore's Senate bid Pelosi: Trump delay on Harriet Tubman is 'an insult to the hopes of millions' MORE (N.Y.), Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinCongress unlikely to reach deal on Trump border bill before break Democrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds MORE (Ill.), Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseSize of 2020 field too big even for Democratic enthusiasts, poll finds Overnight Defense: House passes T spending package with defense funds | Senate set to vote on blocking Saudi arms sales | UN nominee defends climate change record Trump's UN pick faces Senate grilling MORE (R.I.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharJuan Williams: Warren on the rise Progressive group launches campaign to identify voters who switch to Warren 2020 primary debate guide: Everything you need to know ahead of the first Democratic showdown MORE (Minn.), Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Mexican officials scramble to avoid Trump tariffs The Hill's Morning Report - Tariff battle looms as Trump jabs 'foolish' Senate GOP Barbs start to fly ahead of first Democratic debate MORE (Minn.), Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDemocrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks Senators revive effort to create McCain human rights commission Senate Dem to reintroduce bill with new name after 'My Little Pony' confusion MORE (Del.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.).

--This report was updated on May 3 at 7:03 a.m.