Three months ago, President Obama delivered a powerful speech in Selma, Alabama, where he, among other things, called for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act with a bipartisan bill. Former President George W. Bush, who signed a VRA reauthorization during his tenure, stood and applauded Obama’s call.
But soon after the event honoring those who marched at the Edmund Pettus Bridge a half-century ago, Bush’s Republican allies made clear that they would ignore the appeal. Asked if Congress should repair the Voting Rights Act formula struck down by the Supreme Court, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) replied, “No,” blaming the Obama administration for having “trumped up and created an issue where there really isn’t one.” As we reported at the time, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) made similar remarks.
The push to put things right, however, isn’t over. MSNBC’s Zack Roth reports that a new bill to strengthen the Voting Rights Act is ready for consideration.
Lawmakers and civil rights groups said Tuesday evening that they will introduce new legislation aimed at strengthening the Voting Rights Act, ahead of the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling that badly weakened the landmark civil rights law.The new measure is in many ways stronger than the bipartisan legislation offered last year with the same goal, which has yet to even receive a hearing in the GOP-controlled Congress.
Last year’s bill, the “Voting Rights Amendment Act,” was co-authored by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who proved to be one of the only GOP lawmakers committed to working on the issue.
This time, the new bill, the “Voting Rights Advancement Act,” is championed by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) in the House and Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) in the Senate, and it’s an improved approach to protecting Americans’ voting rights.
Which will probably be a little problematic when it comes to actually getting the proposal to the Oval Office.
The Nation’s Ari Berman fleshed out some of the key details:
The Voting Rights Advancement Act restores Section 5 of the VRA by requiring states with 15 voting violations over the past 25 years, or 10 violations if one was statewide, to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would initially cover 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. (The VRAA of 2014 covered only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.) Coverage would last for a 10-year period.These states account for half of the US population and encompass most of the places where voting discrimination is most prevalent today, like Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. The new formula includes the Southern states that were initially targeted by the VRA, where discrimination against African-Americans remains a disquieting problem, along with diverse coastal states like California and New York, which have more recently discriminated against ethnic groups like Latinos and Asian-Americans.
While the bill in the last Congress was generally accommodating of states imposing voter-ID laws, this new approach, Berman added, “would require federal approval for specific election changes that often target minority voters today, on a nationwide basis, particularly in places that are racially, ethnically, or linguistically diverse.” This would include voter-ID laws.
Obviously, if congressional Republicans refused to even consider last year’s bill, the chances of success this year are considerably worse.
Indeed, Zack Roth’s report noted that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) seems eager to ignore the issue altogether. “The fact of the matter is we have a Voting Rights Act,” the far-right Virginian said this week. “It is very strong.”
Goodlatte might have missed the June 2013 Supreme Court ruling that took a sledgehammer to the VRA.
Regardless, if a Republican-led Congress won’t act, why is the bill important? In part because the new-and-improved legislation helps define the parameters of the debate – it’s abundantly clear how the parties approach the issue of voting rights – and in part because it lays the groundwork for the near future.
Remember, this Voting Rights Advancement Act is exactly the kind of proposal Hillary Clinton expressed support for in her recent speech on the issue, and if she’s elected, it’s a safe bet this is the kind of legislation she’ll push for in 2017 and beyond.
Watch this space.