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 LeahyDemocrats press for action on election security The Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine 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 GrassleyGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan NRA says Trump administration memo a 'non-starter' Barr fails to persuade Cruz on expanded background checks MORE (R-Iowa) and Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGOP signals unease with Barr's gun plan Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Trump administration floats background check proposal to Senate GOP 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.

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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 FeinsteinGOP's Kennedy sends warning shot to Trump nominee Menashi Democratic senators quietly hope Biden wins over rivals Grassley: Kavanaugh classmate didn't contact Senate panel MORE (Calif.), Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer, Pelosi push Trump to back universal background check bill Sinema says she would back Kennedy in race against Markey Democrats threaten to withhold defense votes over wall MORE (N.Y.), Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinGOP's Kennedy sends warning shot to Trump nominee Menashi Senate Democrats block government spending bill Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw MORE (Ill.), Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump eyes narrowly focused response to Iran attacks Kavanaugh impeachment push hits Capitol buzz saw Senate GOP pledges to oppose any efforts to 'pack' Supreme Court MORE (R.I.), Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBiden lead shrinks, Sanders and Warren close gap: poll Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE (Minn.), Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenThe Hill's Morning Report - What is Trump's next move on Iran? The Memo: Times correction gives GOP lifeline in latest Kavanaugh controversy Politicon announces lineup including Comey, Hannity, Priebus MORE (Minn.), Chris CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsMedia and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity Bill to return B in unredeemed bonds advances Grassley: Kavanaugh classmate didn't contact Senate panel MORE (Del.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.).

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