There’s plenty of important legislation demanding Congress’ attention in 2014, but one of the key measures was put on the to-do list by the U.S. Supreme Court. Last summer, a narrow court majority gutted the Voting Rights Act, putting the onus on Congress to reform the law in a way Supreme Court conservatives find satisfactory.
It took several months of behind-the-scenes talks, but a legislative fix is now ready and was introduced this afternoon.
Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., John Conyers, D-Mich., and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., brokered the legislation, aimed at restoring federal “pre-clearance” of voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination. […]“Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied his or her constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color,” Leahy said in a statement.
The text of the legislation, known as the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, is online here (pdf). It does not yet have a bill number or a list of original co-sponsors.
Sensenbrenner added the bill “includes strong, nationwide anti-discrimination protections and continues to permit states to enact reasonable voter-ID laws. Therefore, it prevents racial-discrimination and gives states the ability to address voter fraud.”
Sensenbrenner deserves a lot of credit for his commitment to tackling this issue and his follow-through since June – the Wisconsin lawmaker is arguably the only Republican on Capitol Hill who’s made a real effort to put a new VRA together. That said, his quote – complete with references to a “voter fraud” problem that doesn’t exist and “reasonable” voter-ID laws – offers a hint about the underlying problems.
Indeed, looking ahead, there are two broad angles to consider. The first is whether the bill is any good. The second is whether it can pass.
On the former, Ari Berman, who arguably deserves a medal for the quality of his coverage on voting rights, highlighted five main areas of interest:
1: The legislation draws a new coverage formula for Section 4, thereby resurrecting Section 5. States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. […]2: The legislation strengthens Section 3 of the VRA, which has been described as the Act’s “secret weapon.” Under Section 3, jurisdictions not covered by Section 4 could be “bailed-in” to federal supervision, but plaintiffs had to show evidence of intentional voting discrimination, which is very difficult to do in court. Under the new Section 3 proposal, any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law – whether intentional or not – can be grounds for a bail-in, which will make it far easier to cover new states. (One major caveat, again, is that court objections to voter ID laws cannot be used as grounds for “bail-in” under Section 3.)3: The legislation mandates that jurisdictions in all fifty states have to provide notice in the local media and online of any election procedures related to a) redistricting b) changes within 120 days before a federal election and c) the moving of a polling place. This will make it easier for citizens to identify potentially harmful voting changes in the 46 states not subject to Sections 4 and 5.4: The legislation makes it easier to seek a preliminary injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law. Plaintiffs will now only have to show that the hardship to them outweighs the hardship to the state if a law is blocked in court pending a full trial. There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on North Carolina’s voting law in July 2014, before the full trial takes place July 2015.5: The legislation reaffirms that the Attorney General can send federal observers to monitor elections in states subject to Section 4 and expands the AG’s authority to send observers to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against language minority groups, which includes parts of twenty-five states.
Berman’s piece goes into a lot more detail, so interested readers should definitely dive in. Democrats involved in this process appear to have accepted **a lot** of concessions, which makes the effort harder to get excited about from a progressive perspective, but the goal appears to be to craft legislation that can pass a Republican-led House.
Which leads us to our other question about the viability of the bipartisan bill. In theory, this should be the ultimate in no-brainers – when Congress last considered the Voting Rights Act, it was practically unanimous (in the Senate, it was literally unanimous). Why would even the most unhinged Republicans vote against it now?
Basically, because they can. It’s one thing to vote to reauthorize a landmark law from the civil-rights era; it’s something else to approve new legislation that might make it easier for Americans to participate in their democracy – the kind of participation conservatives fear may be detrimental to Republican victories.
Consider this tidbit from the Roll Call article:
The effort does not yet have full buy-in from Republican leadership, said a senior GOP aide. Leaders are wary of push back from conservative members and are skeptical that the bill could attract the support of a majority of the Republican Conference. They are also concerned that Democrats would politicize the issue to make gains in the 2014 midterm elections.
The “politicization” issue is bizarre – if Republicans don’t want this to be a divisive electoral issue, they can pass the bill and take it off the table, leaving Democrats to talk about something else. The only way to invite Dems to “politicize the issue” is to do nothing and create a new plank in the Democratic platform.
As for attracting the support of a majority of the Republican conference, GOP leaders have routinely ignored the so-called “Hastert Rule” whenever they felt like it, so this isn’t much of an excuse, either.
Given this, we’re very likely to see a familiar dynamic: a popular bill that’s likely to pass the Senate, and would pass the House if only it were brought to the floor for an up-or-down vote.
There will be some interesting fights between now and the 2014 midterms; the fate of the VRA is going to be one of them.