Voting rights change stuck in Congress

06/04/2014 4:47 PM

06/04/2014 6:10 PM

It was hailed as a bipartisan breakthrough, a bill to repair the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the Supreme Court weakened key components of the landmark civil rights legislation last year.

“We have hit the goldmine here,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., one of the authors of the bill, confidently declared last January at the unveiling of the measure.

Now the ballyhoo over the compromise has dissipated. The bill, which its authors believed would pass Congress before November’s elections, sits in limbo in both the Republican-run House of Representatives and Democratic-controlled Senate, mired in distrust and disagreement between and within the political parties.

“I think the effort to change the court ruling will die,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Democrats and civil rights groups blame Republicans and say it’s up to the House to move. Indeed, dozens of House Republicans who supported a 2006 extension of the Voting Rights Act won’t say whether they support the bill, and Virginia Rep. Robert Goodlatte, the Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee, will not say whether he’ll hold a hearing on it.

At the same time, dozens of Democrats who voted for the same extension in 2006 also have not signed on as co-sponsors. And President Barack Obama hasn’t made passage of an amended Voting Rights Act a high-profile priority, though he urged Congress in April “to honor those who gave their lives so that others could exercise their rights and update the Voting Rights Act.”

Goodlatte, who voted for a 25-year extension of the act in 2006, said last week that the bill is “one of many issues we’re looking at.” In a statement last month, he said he supports “protecting the voting rights of all Americans” and would “carefully consider legislative proposals addressing the issue.”

Six months after its unveiling, the House bill has only 22 co-sponsors – 14 Democrats and eight Republicans. The level of support thus far pales in comparison to the 2006 legislation, which was passed on a 390-33 vote, with 197 Democrats and 192 Republicans voting yes.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he will hold a hearing this month to highlight the need for action in response to what he called the Supreme Court’s “disastrous” ruling. However, only two Senate Democrats have signed on as co-sponsors.

In its 5-4 ruling in June 2013, the Supreme Court knocked out part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act but invited Congress to revisit it, saying that the law needs updating to account for how times have changed.

The court struck down a requirement that nine states and parts of six others obtain Justice Department approval before making election changes that might disproportionately affect minority voting.

The ruling freed from decades of scrutiny the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as select jurisdictions in California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina and South Dakota.

The justices said that Congress needed to set a new formula for determining which jurisdictions would require department pre-clearance for everything from voter identification requirements to how many voting machines are allotted to minority precincts.

The response was the proposed Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, written by Sensenbrenner, Leahy and Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

States with five voting rights violations within a 15-year period would be subject to federal oversight, as would localities with three violations within the prior 15 years or those with one violation and a “persistent, extremely low minority turnout.”

Based on records over the past 15 years, only four states would initially be covered: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Court judgments – a tough threshold _ would largely be needed to add any jurisdiction to Justice Department coverage.

Even if passed, the bill likely would have little impact on this year’s elections for control of Congress. It would only cover election changes adopted at least 61 days after its enactment, so it wouldn’t affect anything already in place. And it would allow states to require photo IDs for voting, which Democrats complain will depress turnout from minority voters.

Leaders of both parties in both chambers acknowledge that the push for a bipartisan fix on the politically charged issue has hit a rough patch.

“Both sides still have concerns with various aspects of this proposal, so we continue to have conversations about how it can be improved,” said Megan Whittemore, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, said “there’s a dispute within the party,” because some Republicans feel any fix should apply to all 50 states.

House Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn, D-S.C., who supports the compromise bill, said it “makes some people on the Republican side uneasy, and it certainly makes a lot of people on the Democratic side uneasy.”

“We think it’s a proper response, an appropriate response to what the chief justice said when he invited us to update the formula.”

Civil rights groups are turning up the heat. In a letter last month to Goodlatte and Conyers, 29 civil rights groups said that “the right to vote for all is under grave threat.”

This week, three groups including the League of Women Voters sponsored full-page newspaper ads in Goodlattte’s and Cantor’s Virginia districts calling for action. Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, has publicly pressed 67 House Republicans who voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 2006 to explain why they’re not endorsing the compromise.

The group is not targeting Democrats who have not signed on as sponsors.

Some Democrats are wary that the bill would protect photo ID laws and reduce the number of covered states. Even while declaring her support last January, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, expressed “serious concerns” about it.

Former President Bill Clinton threw a new wrinkle into the debate recently when he proposed that the U.S. government finance Social Security photo IDs, so that voters could acquire them for free, a policy that would eliminate concerns that low-income minorities can’t afford them.

Still, Clyburn calls photo ID laws “an arsenic-laced solution put in a Coca-Cola can,” though he doesn’t think that will dampen overall Democratic support for the bill.

He said more Democrats haven’t signed on as co-sponsors to the House measure because the Democratic House leadership wants a corresponding number of Republican co-sponsors to avoid the perception that the measure is strictly a Democratic bill.

They may have trouble finding Republican partners, according to Graham. He said many Republicans are “very comfortable” with the Supreme Court’s decision and see no need for further action.

“I feel very comfortable that my state has proven that it can hold free and fair elections,” he said. “I think the court made a reasonable decision.”

Hilary Shelton, head of the NAACP’s Washington office, said House Judiciary Committee Chair Goodlatte told officials from various civil rights groups at a May 6 meeting that he isn’t convinced that the Voting Rights Act needs repair. He believes that provisions in the act untouched by the Supreme Court adequately protect voting rights, Shelton said.

“He didn’t see an urgency in moving forward,” Shelton said. “He asked for more information to substantiate our claims.”

A spokeswoman for Goodlatte declined to comment on the meeting.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund recently gave Goodlatte a 16,000-word document that detailed discriminatory voting changes stopped by the Voting Rights Act before the Shelby decision.

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