Democratic leaders press GOP to update Voting Rights Act
House Democratic leaders on Friday called on Senate Republicans to strengthen voting rights protections, marking their latest venture into racial justice issues in the month since George Floyd’s death.
The legislative push is sure to go nowhere in an election year when Republicans in the Senate and the White House have opposed virtually every Democratic proposal to expand ballot protections and access to polls. But Democrats are hoping to highlight the issue on the campaign trail as they fight to flip control of the Senate and White House in November.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the House majority leader, seemed to acknowledge it is unlikely new voting protections will be enacted this year. But he warned Republicans that ignoring the issue will prove futile if Democrats expand their power in 2021.
“This will not go away,” Hoyer said during a press briefing in the Capitol. “And it’s better, and fairer, and more just and more American to do it today.”
In December, House Democrats had passed legislation to strengthen federal oversight of elections in states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls — a proposal opposed by most Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has declined to bring the measure up for a vote.
Democrats have been pushing to update the Voting Rights Act since 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted a central provision of the 1965 law requiring certain states to win federal approval before changing their election rules.
With Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis police custody, and the national outcry that’s consumed the country since then, Democrats sense a unique opportunity to move — or at least highlight — a host of legislation designed to eradicate racial inequities across broad swaths of American society.
On Thursday, they passed sweeping police reforms. For Friday, they’ve scheduled a historic vote to make Washington, D.C., a state. And next week they intend to move health care and infrastructure legislation, both aimed at ironing out racial disparities in those arenas.
The push to bolster voting rights protections fits the theme.
“There is no more obvious example of institutional and systemic racism than voter discrimination and the anti-democratic practices that bar African Americans and people of color from exercising their fundamental right to vote,” said. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.).
Enacted at the height of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act had required certain states to get federal approval before changing election rules. The law had applied on a blanket basis to nine states — most of them in the South — with documented histories of racial discrimination.
In its 5-4 decision in June 2013, the Supreme Court upheld Congress’s authority to monitor elections against discrimination, but struck down the decades-old formula dictating which regions are subject to the additional layer of scrutiny.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said the coverage formula was simply outdated and therefore unconstitutional.
Roberts invited Congress to “draft another formula based on current conditions.”
In the wake of the decision, a number of states — including Texas, North Carolina and Alabama — moved quickly to adopt tougher election policies, including new voter registration and voter ID requirements.
Supporters of those laws say they’re needed to fight voter fraud. Opponents argue that they’re a scheme to discourage voting by Black people and other minorities, who tend to support Democrats.
“The pre-clearance provided for fair treatment, and what the court said is, ‘Well, we have fair treatment now, so we’ll throw out the reason we do,’ ” Hoyer said.
“What perverse judgement that is,” he added.
Sponsored by Sewell, the Democrats’ bill would update the pre-clearance formula to reflect current conditions. Under the measure, some states would be added, and others dropped, from the original list requiring federal approval to change election rules.
Rep. James Clyburn (S.C.), the Democratic whip and a veteran of the civil rights movement, pointed to Tuesday’s primary elections in Kentucky — where polling stations were scarce and voting lines were blocks long — as evidence that Congress needs to step in to ensure the right of every voter to be counted is protected.
“The most effective way to silence people,” he warned, “is to deny the right to vote.”
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