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 LeahyThese Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Former US attorney considering Senate run in Vermont as Republican 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 GrassleyChuck GrassleySmall ranchers say Biden letting them get squeezed These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Hillicon Valley — Senate panel advances major antitrust bill MORE (R-Iowa) and Sen. John CornynJohn CornynSenators huddle on Russia sanctions as tensions escalate Momentum builds for new COVID-19 relief for businesses Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products 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oversee elections for the sake of fighting discrimination, the formula underlying the "pre-clearance" requirement was outdated and therefore unconstitutional.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 FeinsteinOvernight Energy & Environment — Starting from 'scratch' on climate, spending bill Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Eight senators ask Biden to reverse course on Trump-era solar tariffs MORE (Calif.), Charles SchumerChuck SchumerVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Forced deadline spurs drastic tactic in Congress Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (N.Y.), Dick DurbinDick DurbinBipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law Democrats ask for information on specialized Border Patrol teams Democrats face scaled-back agenda after setbacks MORE (Ill.), Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseOvernight Energy & Environment — Starting from 'scratch' on climate, spending bill Oath Keeper charges renew attention on Trump orbit Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (R.I.), Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley — Biden celebrates 'right to repair' wins Advocacy groups urge Congress to tackle tech giants' auto industry focus Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE (Minn.), Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenMeet the Democrats' last best hope of preserving a House majority Franken rules out challenge against Gillibrand for Senate seat Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour MORE (Minn.), Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden's public moment of frustration Russia announces military exercises amid standoff with US, NATO over Ukraine Democrats say change to filibuster just a matter of time MORE (Del.) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.).

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