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. That means that while the new effort could generate more devoted support from progressives, it may be even less likely to get the backing it would need from Republicans.
Among the provisions of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, sponsored by Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), according to a draft obtained by msnbc:
- An updated coverage formula for the VRA, with the result that the nation's three largest states—California, Texas and New York—as well as North Carolina and Alabama, would need federal approval, known as pre-clearance, to make changes to their election rules. If the bill were passed this year, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia also would be covered. Under last year’s legislation, known as the Voting Rights Amendment Act, only four states—Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama—would immediately have been covered.
- A requirement that all 50 states get federal approval for any new barrier to voting or voter registration—as well as for other changes that often hurt minorities, like changing the number or location of polling places, or moving from a district-based to an at-large system for apportioning seats. In an effort to win Republican support, the 2014 bill gave special treatment to voter ID laws by not counting them among the violations that could cause an area to be put under the pre-clearance system.
- A requirement that jurisdictions publicly post any changes to voting rules within 180 days of an election, designed to help stop last-minute changes that fly under the radar.
Those tough provisions could help line up progressive and Democratic support behind the bill. But they figure to have the reverse effect on the GOP, which is increasingly committed to voter ID laws as a matter of policy, and tends to be deeply skeptical of federal intervention in state’s voting procedures. In an indication of that dynamic, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who was a co-sponsor of the 2014 bill, hasn't signed on to the new legislation.
Even the weaker 2014 bill attracted little Republican support. For more than a year, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has rebuffed calls from civil rights groups to hold a hearing on the measures, saying in recent months that the Voting Rights Act is still strong enough to stop racial discrimination in voting.
Goodlatte reiterated that stance Monday, telling a reporter: “The fact of the matter is we have a Voting Rights Act; it is very strong.”
Civil rights organizations and prominent progressive groups, including the Sierra Club, the AFL-CIO and others, plan to rally Thursday in a Roanoke, Virginia park in Goodlatte’s district to urge him to restore the VRA to full strength.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula used to determine which areas of the country were covered under the pre-clearance regime—a formula that included most southern states—was outdated. That ruling neutered the law’s strongest provision, known as Section 5, under which the federal government could block any election change made by a covered area before it went into effect, if it might set back minority voting power.
In the two years since then, numerous states and local jurisdictions have moved ahead with potentially discriminatory changes to their voting laws. Texas’ strict voter ID law, which had been blocked by a federal court under Section 5, and North Carolina’s sweeping and restrictive voting law have been among the highest profile. But on the local level, several cities and counties also have made changes that set back minorities, for instance by changing how districts are drawn, or by moving elections to a date when minorities typically are less likely to vote.
Hillary Clinton this month called for the VRA to be restored to full strength as part of an ambitious agenda for expanding voting rights.