Dems pound drum for voting rights update

Greg Nash

House Democratic leaders are intensifying the pressure on Republicans for stronger voter protections.

The lawmakers launched a new campaign Tuesday — one year prior to the 2016 elections — aimed at forcing the GOP to consider an update to the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

{mosads}Republican leaders have refused to consider such legislation, arguing that the provisions of the law left intact by the court provide ample protections at the polls.

The Democrats hope to counter that argument with weekly events — dubbed “Restoration Tuesdays” — designed to highlight state-based “barriers” to voting, build public support for reform and force the Republicans to act.

“The integrity of our whole voting system is in question when we put up these barriers,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol. “Restoration Tuesday gives us a way to reach out, to re-engage, so that people see the connection between their vote, legislation that passes and their lives.”

Pelosi accused the Republicans of giving lip service to voting rights by joining Democrats in Selma, Ala., in March for the 50th anniversary of the VRA while then ignoring the issue back in Washington.

“We had a bipartisan bill. It was a compromise. We thought it had a good prospect of success. But they said, ‘You got a visit to Selma, you’re not getting a bill on the floor,’ ” Pelosi charged. “And that just isn’t right.” 

The Democrats have a steep climb ahead. 

While there is some GOP support for a VRA update, the number of public backers is small. And Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee has jurisdiction over the issue, has repeatedly rejected new legislation, saying the law remains strong enough, post-Supreme Court ruling, to guarantee the right to vote. 

Newly elected Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has been largely absent from the VRA debate, but his promise to shift more power to the committees suggests that reform supporters will have an even tougher time side-stepping Goodlatte to bring a bill to the floor.

With that in mind, the Democrats are hoping to stir a public outcry that will force the Republicans’ hands. 

“Most Americans don’t understand that the ability to vote effectively, in many states, has been removed,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“If the American people really know the import of the inaction of this Congress, I believe public opinion will rise. And if public opinion were to rise, I believe the politicians, including the chairman of the committee, would be forced to move this bill to the floor for an up-or-down vote.”

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said he supports an enhanced role for the committees. Still, he said it would be a mistake for Ryan to allow individual committee heads to block popular legislation.

“He was elected to lead,” Hoyer said Tuesday. “That doesn’t mean he’s going to force the committees to do things just because he believes them. But I would certainly hope he is not [going to] put his own convictions at the whim of the committees no matter how overwhelming that vote may be.”

In its 5-4 decision in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 VRA, which required nine states with a history of racial discrimination to get Washington’s approval before changing their voting rules.  

Behind Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court’s conservative majority found that, while the federal government has the power to require pre-clearance of voting changes, the formula dictating which states must comply is outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

Roberts invited Congress to “draft another formula based on current conditions.”

Reps. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), Judy Chu (D-Calif.) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) have tried to do just that. Their bill creates a new coverage formula based on cases of voter discrimination occurring since 1990. Under their blueprint, 13 states would fall under the pre-clearance requirement, including California, Texas, New York, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina and Arizona.

In the upper chamber, a companion bill has been sponsored by Sens. Patrick Leahy (Vt.), the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. One Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), has endorsed it.

The Sewell/Leahy bill is much broader than a similar VRA measure sponsored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the former Judiciary Committee chairman who championed the last VRA update in 2006, and John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking member of the Judiciary panel. That measure would require pre-clearance for voting changes in only four states — Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana.

Rep. Jim Clyburn (S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat, suggested Tuesday that, since neither bill is likely to move under the GOP-controlled Congress, the Democrats are trumpeting the stronger of the two.

“We faced severe criticism from the civil rights community and the voting rights community because they thought that we had so-narrowed the bill [that] we excluded states that were engaged in mischief, my state being one of them,” Clyburn said.

The Supreme Court ruling freed a number of conservative states — including Texas, North Carolina and Alabama — to adopt stricter voting requirements that had been on hold under the old VRA.

Butterfield said a new voter ID requirement in North Carolina threatens to disenfranchise “thousands” of black voters in the Tar Heel State next year.

And Sewell noted that her home state of Alabama, which requires voters to show identification at the polls, recently closed 31 DMV offices, which provide the most common forms of ID. Prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, she argued, such closures would have been disallowed.

“The Supreme Court … said we need to find modern-day examples,” Sewell said. “Well, Alabama all day long provides modern-day examples of voter discrimination.”

Tags Bob Goodlatte G.K. Butterfield Jim Sensenbrenner Lisa Murkowski Patrick Leahy Paul Ryan Terri Sewell
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