Senate Judiciary squares off over John Lewis voting rights bill

Senate Judiciary squares off over John Lewis voting rights bill
© Greg Nash

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held a hearing on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was introduced to the upper chamber on Tuesday by Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyThe Hill's Morning Report - Ins and outs: Powell renominated at Fed, Parnell drops Senate bid On The Money — Biden sticks with Powell despite pressure Welch to seek Senate seat in Vermont MORE (D-Vt.).

It's the fourth hearing that the Senate has had over voting rights this session of Congress, though, as of late, the Democratic priority has been overshadowed by the party’s struggle to pass other key legislation, including raising the country’s debt ceiling, the bipartisan infrastructure deal and President BidenJoe BidenSouth Africa health minister calls travel bans over new COVID variant 'unjustified' Biden attends tree lighting ceremony after day out in Nantucket Senior US diplomat visiting Southeast Asia to 'reaffirm' relations MORE’s $3.5 trillion budget resolution.

Headlining the hearing was Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen ClarkeKristen ClarkeHillicon Valley — Justice Department takes on Uber Justice sues Uber over 'wait time' fees DOJ investigating Alabama over wastewater in majority-Black county MORE, who has voiced strong support for the legislation aimed at strengthening the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

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“I am here today to sound an alarm,” Clarke told the Senate panel. “For the Justice Department, restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act as a matter of great urgency.”

During the hearing, Clarke was grilled by Republican committee members on the bill and a variety of other Justice Department matters.

Iowa Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Iowa Democrat drops bid to challenge Grassley after death of nephew Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE, the committee’s top Republican, called the bill named after late Georgia Rep. John LewisJohn LewisWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Obama, Dave Chappelle nominated in same Grammy category Progressive groups urge Feinstein to back filibuster carve out for voting rights or resign MORE (D), a voting rights champion, a “disaster” that would federalize state elections.

GOP support for the legislation is scarce; it passed through the House in August along party lines.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (R-Ky.) has previously called the bill “unnecessary.”

The legislation revises the formula for the VRA’s preclearance measure, described by Clarke as the Justice Department’s “single most powerful and effective tool for protecting the right to vote.”

Under the preclearance, states and jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination — largely the Jim Crow South — were required to gain Justice Department approval before implementing any change to their voting procedures.

“In over 60 percent of blocked voting changes, there was evidence of intentional discrimination,” Clarke noted. “We also know that the preclearance requirement deterred many jurisdictions from adopting discriminatory changes in the first place.”

However, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the preclearance formula was outdated and therefore unconstitutional, rendering the protection moot.

At the time, Chief Justice John Roberts said that Congress had the power to update the formula so that it would accurately reflect the status of voting rights in the country. The new formula takes into account the voting rights records of states and localities from the past 25 years.

Also addressed in the legislation is Section 2 of the VRA, following a separate Supreme Court decision from July that upheld a pair of Arizona voting restrictions.

Section 2 outlaws states and other jurisdictions from implementing voting procedures that discriminate against Americans on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group, though advocates and Democrats have argued that the court’s ruling weakened the oversight power of the provision.

While voting rights were once a bipartisan issue, they recently became a fierce partisan battle line.

Following thoroughly debunked claims from former President TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE that last year’s presidential election was stolen from him through voter fraud — an exceedingly rare occurrence in American politics — GOP-controlled state legislatures have introduced hundreds of bills that tighten access to the ballot box.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 33 of the bills have become law across 19 states.

Conservatives have defended the legislation, arguing that greater election security and integrity are needed.

The John Lewis bill joins the Freedom to Vote Act — a pared-down version of the For the People Act — as Democrats’ current strategy to combat the wave of state-level voting restrictions.

That said, both pieces of legislation have dubious odds of getting the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome a filibuster, as Republicans are firmly against both bills.

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Congressional gridlock on voting rights and other Democratic priorities has prompted a growing number of advocates and lawmakers to call for some level of filibuster reform, but moderate Democrats Sens. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season White House looks to rein in gas prices ahead of busy travel season MORE (W.Va.) and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Five Senate Democrats reportedly opposed to Biden banking nominee MORE (Ariz.) have balked at supporting that strategy.

Both bills have the support of the White House, though Biden has also stopped short of endorsing the nixing of the filibuster.

Leahy, the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate, signaled that this version of the bill had some differences from its House counterpart but didn’t elaborate on exact discrepancies.