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The fight to strengthen Voting Rights Act is not over yet

On next week's anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling gutting the VRA, civil rights groups and their allies will rally in the district of a key GOP lawmaker.
A man walks in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington April 23, 2015. (Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
A man walks in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington April 23, 2015. 

Legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act (VRA) remains stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress. But as the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that gutted the landmark civil rights law approaches, supporters of the measure aren’t giving up the fight, despite long odds.

A coalition of civil rights, voting rights, labor, and other progressive groups plan to mark the June 25 anniversary by rallying in the Virginia district of Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee where the legislation has been bottled up.

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“In this 50th anniversary year of the Voting Rights Act, voters are more vulnerable to discrimination than at any time since the law was first passed in 1965," Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. "Congressional leadership has yet to act on restoring the law.” 

Asked to respond, a House Judiciary aide offered no sign that Goodlatte's position has changed. "[S]trong remedies against unconstitutional voting discrimination remain in place today," the aide said in an email. "We will continue to monitor this very important issue to ensure that the voting rights of all Americans are protected."

The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder neutered the strongest provision of the landmark civil rights law. Known as Section 5, it required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to submit any changes to their election rules to the federal government for sign-off before they could go into effect. The court ruled by 5-4 that the formula for determining which areas were covered was out of date.

In January 2014, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act (VRAA), which aimed to restore the law to its former strength by laying out a new coverage formula. Among the lead sponsors was Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who led the 2006 effort to reauthorize the VRA.

But the legislation’s prospects don’t look good. Goodlatte has rebuffed repeated calls to hold a hearing on the measure, saying current law is adequate to stop racial discrimination in voting.

“There are still very, very strong protections in the Voting Rights Act in the area that the Supreme Court ruled on,” Goodlatte told reporters in January. “To this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now.”

Goodlatte added: “We’ll continue to examine this, we’ll continue to listen to the concerns of individuals, and we’ll certainly look at any instances of discrimination in people’s access to the ballot box, because it is a very, very important principle.”

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Meanwhile, some voting rights and civil rights advocates have said the VRAA legislation doesn’t go far enough. Its formula would initially only cover Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia, and, in a bid to win Republican support, it goes easy on voter ID laws.

Since Shelby, numerous state and local governments, mostly in the south, have moved forward with voting changes that disproportionately affect racial minorities. Texas’s voter ID law, which got new life after the ruling, has been found by two separate federal courts to discriminate against blacks and Hispanics. It's currently on appeal.

In her recent speech on voting, Hilary Clinton called for the VRA to be restored to full strength. 

Next week's rally, at a park in Roanoke, Virginia, will be attended by a who’s who of progressive organizations. In addition to Henderson's group, that includes the NAACP, the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the Sierra Club, the National Action Network, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and People for the American Way.