Could GOP play ball on Voting Rights Act?

Torri Tippett, 8, from Birmingham, Alabama rides on a bus to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 19, 2009. Birmingham, along with Selma and...
Torri Tippett, 8, from Birmingham, Alabama rides on a bus to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama on January 19, 2009. Birmingham, along with Selma and...
Mario Tama/Getty Images

When the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act last Tuesday, Republican officials in states covered by the law were quick to dance on its grave. “A victory for all voters,” declared South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson in one typical response.

But in Washington, GOP leaders have sounded a very different tone. They haven’t joined Democrats in denouncing the court’s ruling, but neither have they rushed to celebrate it—and some have said they’ll look into what Congress can do to address the issue. That nuanced response—likely the result of a pragmatic awareness among national-level Republicans that they can’t afford to keep alienating minorities—could potentially have big implications for voting rights.

The Supreme Court struck down the formula used to determine which areas of the country were singled out for special federal scrutiny under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, saying the data used by Congress to reauthorize the law in 2006 was out of date. In order for Section 5 to go back into effect, lawmakers would need to come up with a new formula. They could also strengthen other parts of the law: Rep. James Clyburn, who’s leading the Democratic push, told NBC’s The Grio Tuesday his party is debating a new provision that would set certain minimum standards—nine days of early voting, for instance—that all states would have to follow. But citing the partisan gridlock and Republican nihilism that has characterized Congress lately, most observers have written off the possibility of Congress acting any time soon.

But the measured GOP response suggests that verdict may have been too hasty.

Senate Judiciary chair Pat Leahy has said his committee will hold “multiple” hearings this month on how to fix the Voting Rights Act in the wake of the court’s ruling—no surprise, since Leahy, a liberal Democrat, is a long-time supporter of voting rights.

But so too has Leahy’s House counterpart, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican. “We’ll look at what new data is available and we will make sure that people’s freedom to vote in elections in this country is protected,” Goodlatte told CNN Monday, though he declined to say that the committee would take any specific activity.

A GOP aide told Roll Call Monday that “discussions among top Republicans and Democrats are already under way, with every intention of introducing a legislative solution,”

At least one Republican on Goodlatte’s panel will likely be pushing for an aggressive response. As committee chair in 2006, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner led the process that reauthorized the Voting Rights Act by an overwhelmingly majority. Sensnebrenner pledged in a statement last week to work to fix the law “to protect voting rights, especially for minorities,” adding that “discrimination still exists.”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor sounded a similar tone, saying he planned to discuss the issue with Rep. John Lewis—a walking symbol of the struggle for voting rights since being beaten by police during a 1965 civil rights march. “I think that you could probably say for both sides of the political aisle—no matter where you come from regionally—that very sacred right to vote is in the underpinning of this country,” Cantor told Yahoo News.

Even John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have avoided dancing on Section 5’s grave. The House Speaker last week dodged the question, referring reporters to Goodlatte. And McConnell noted that the Voting Rights Act had passed when “we had a very different America,” but declined to go further, saying he hadn’t read the ruling.

Behind the Republicans’ caution is likely the concern that, with the party already struggling to win minority voters, it can’t afford to come off as opposed to perhaps the most important civil-rights measure ever passed. Republicans may largely have written off the black vote for the near future, but many of the newer voter suppression measures that could be helped by the law’s weakening target Latinos, whose votes are likely more winnable.

Public opinion more generally may be pushing the GOP toward compromise. A USA Today poll released Monday night found 49% of respondents opposed to the court’s ruling, and only 40% supporting it.

Of course, it’s easy to read too much into some conciliatory rhetoric. Even voting-rights advocates acknowledged before the ruling that getting Congress to fix Section 5 would be a very heavy lift, and by any fair assessment, it remains a long shot. That’s in part because the leadership’s concern about wooing minority voters may be out of sync with the rest of the party: On immigration reform, as msnbc reported Monday, a growing number of conservatives is arguing against reaching out to Latinos, and instead urging the GOP to double down on white voters. That strategy could lead Republicans to decide not to engage on voting rights, either.

Still—combined with efforts by voting-rights supporters to devise new legal strategies that challenge voting restrictions without relying on Section 5—the national GOP’s response suggests, if nothing else, that for the fight to protect minority voting rights, last week’s ruling was as much a starting point as an ending.

Could GOP play ball on Voting Rights Act?