Voting-rights remedies face long odds on Capitol Hill

Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.)
Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.)
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The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the Voting Rights Act did not actually strike down the entire civil-rights law, but rather, gutted it by rejecting Section 4 of the VRA. The burden then shifted to Congress to find a remedy, adopting a new formula that would meet judicial muster.

In the aftermath, there was some debate as to just how despondent voting-rights advocates should be, with some arguing this might be an issue where bipartisan cooperation is possible, while others predicted congressional failure. (I was in the latter camp.)

Yesterday, the House held its first hearing on the VRA since the court ruling, and if the public comments were any indication, the odds of success in the near future appear long.

If House Republicans are interested in patching the Voting Rights Act, they aren’t showing it.

“Historically I fully understand why they addressed the situations they did,” Republican Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, who chairs the House judiciary subcommittee that would handle new voting rights legislation, said to reporters after the hearing. “I am just of the opinion today that we should do as the court said and that is to not focus on punishing the past but on building a better future.”

Most of the Republican members of the panel apparently didn’t think the hearing was especially important – which is to say, they didn’t show up – and the witnesses GOP lawmakers called reinforced fears that the party simply isn’t interested in a constructive debate.

The Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, for example, was called by Republicans to offer his “expert” testimony on voting rights, despite the fact that von Spakovsky is best known for the loathsome voter-suppression tactics he championed during his tenure in the Bush/Cheney Justice Department. If this is the guy GOP lawmakers are turning to for guidance, the future of the Voting Rights Act is bleak.

Indeed, von Spakovsky assured the Judiciary Committee panel that the “the systematic, widespread discrimination against blacks has long since disappeared.”

Sure, Hans, whatever you say.

Anyone predicting congressional Republicans might do the right thing on voting rights should probably adjust their expectations accordingly. GOP policymakers at the state level are rushing to impose new restrictions to keep voters from participating in their own democracy, and GOP policymakers at the federal level appear content to do nothing to stop them.