Congress must hold hearings on voting discrimination
© Greg Nash

"Voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts two years ago this summer in Shelby County v. Holder, the case that nonetheless struck down core protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Rep. Bob GoodlatteRobert (Bob) William GoodlatteBottom line No documents? Hoping for legalization? Be wary of Joe Biden Press: Trump's final presidential pardon: himself MORE (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, apparently begs to differ. Speaking at a gathering of local businesses in Virginia last week, Goodlatte said that he was "willing to look at any new evidence of discrimination. ... But at this point in time, we have not seen that."


If he would hold a hearing in the committee he chairs, Goodlatte would learn about the continued, pernicious effects of racial discrimination and the ballot box. Hundreds of people rallied in his district last week to demand that he take this first, commonsense step.

In Shelby County, the Supreme Court struck down a core provision of the Voting Rights Act: the "preclearance" formula that Congress used to determine which states and jurisdictions, based on their history of discrimination, require extra scrutiny from the Department of Justice before implementing changes to voting procedures. Essentially, the Supreme Court said that Congress needs to update the formula in the wake of more recent history.

Preclearance is the heart of the law because it is one of the best tools to stop discrimination before it occurs — and before the need for costly litigation.

After President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law, Congress has since reauthorized it four times. Goodlatte himself voted to reauthorize the preclearance provisions in 2006, along with a broad bipartisan majority in the House and a unanimous Senate. His vote came after 21 hearings and a record spanning more than 15,000 pages. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), then chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said that Congress's work was "one of the most extensive considerations of any piece of legislation that the United States Congress has dealt with in the 27 and a half years" he had then served in Congress.

Immediately after the Supreme Court gutted the preclearance formula in 2013, six states moved forward with their plans to enact laws that the Department of Justice had not yet precleared. As a report from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights shows, scores of other jurisdictions have sought to change their voting procedures in recent years in ways that will disproportionately affect voters of color, including just after Shelby County.

One of the worst offenders is North Carolina. One month after the Supreme Court acted, legislators in that state jammed through comprehensive legislation that, among other things, eliminated a week of early voting, eliminated same-day voter registration, made it easier for self-appointed polling-place vigilantes to interfere with voters at the polls, ended preregistration of 16- and 17-year olds and put in place one of the most restrictive photo identification laws in the United States. Now with a federal trial set to start in a matter of weeks, North Carolina just this month eased some of the overly burdensome photo identification requirements it passed in 2013, but it still has a long way to go.

The good news is that the Supreme Court did not take preclearance entirely off the table. Instead, the five-justice majority put the ball squarely in Congress's court to fix the law. Specifically, Roberts wrote that "Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions. ... [W]hile any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions."

There are now two bills pending in Congress to do just that: the Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Voting Rights Amendment Act. These bills, although different in scope, provide a path forward for Congress to update and modernize the Voting Rights Act so that its preclearance provisions apply in jurisdictions with a recent history of discriminatory voting practices.

Congress has always acted in a bipartisan way to keep the Voting Rights Act on the books at full strength, and this time should be no different. With two bills in place from Republicans and Democrats alike, it's time for Congress to respond to the Supreme Court's invitation to update the law.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and the march from Selma, Ala., where people shed blood for the right to vote. It's not enough to commemorate. We need Congress to legislate.

Goodlatte has shown a willingness in the past to remedy discrimination in voting when he voted to reauthorize the preclearance provisions. Although he said that he has "not seen" any evidence of discrimination in recent years, a hearing — which Rep. Goodlatte has the power to hold — will provide an opportunity to air all views about the basic right of every eligible American to have a say in our democracy.

What does he have to lose?

Spaulding is policy counsel at Common Cause in Washington.