A top Republican has all but confirmed that Congress won’t move forward with legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act (VRA), which was badly weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary committee, said Wednesday morning that the landmark civil rights legislation is still robust enough 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 said at a breakfast event with reporters, hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "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.”
He added, according to an audio recording obtained by msnbc: “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."
"We think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection ..."'
Wade Henderson, the president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which has led an aggressive effort urging lawmakers to strengthen the VRA, blasted Goodlatte's comments.
“Chairman Goodlatte has paid no attention to the rampant voting discrimination still happening throughout the country, most recently seen in the 2014 midterm elections," said Henderson in a statement. "If he were ‘listening’ as he claims, the chairman would recognize the clear need to restore the Voting Rights Act to ensure that all voters are allowed to cast a ballot."
A bipartisan group of lawmakers last January introduced legislation to strengthen the VRA. But despite an intense lobbying effort by civil rights groups, Goodlatte had declined even to hold a hearing on the measure. Wednesday’s comments go further still in confirming that Republicans see the bill as a nonstarter.
Still, congressional supporters of fixing the VRA haven't given up. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who has helped lead the push to strengthen the law, plans to reintroduce a tweaked version of the VRA legislation this session, according to a person involved in the discussions.
In June 2013, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, neutered a key plank of the 1965 VRA known as Section 5, which had required certain states and jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing their voting laws. The court ruled that the formula used by Congress to determine which areas required federal approval was outdated, noting that the South has made progress on race relations since the 1960s.
The legislation unveiled by Sensenbrenner, Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers and others last January aimed to strengthen the VRA by creating a new, updated formula. But from the start, few Republicans appeared interested in supporting the measure. The surprising primary defeat of Eric Cantor, who had appeared open to the legislation, was another blow.
"The weakened VRA lacks the ability to protect voters from discrimination before they are denied the right to vote."'
Goodlatte's claim that even without Section 5, the VRA remains strong enough to stop racial discrimination in voting is questionable at best. Last fall, the weakened law failed to stop several controversial voting restrictions that were advanced by states in the wake of the Shelby ruling, and that, according to reams of data, disproportionately affect racial minorities.
In one glaring example among several, Texas's voter ID law was struck down by a federal court as a racially discriminatory "poll tax," but it went back into effect for last fall's election thanks to a last-minute Supreme Court order.
In Wednesday’s comments, Goodlatte noted that the law still contains a “bail-in” provision that allows jurisdictions to be placed under federal supervision if they’re found to have racially discriminated in their voting systems. But the process is typically lengthy and complex, meaning it’s not well-suited for stopping discrimination that’s already occurred.
"The weakened VRA lacks the ability to protect voters from discrimination before they are denied the right to vote," said Henderson. "The remedies that the chairman says still exist are costly and time consuming to pursue through the courts and decisions in these cases often come long after voters have been excluded from elections that they had every right to participate in."
The VRA has been reauthorized several times since its passage by large bipartisan majorities — including as recently as 2006.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House leader, said in an interview Monday that Republicans’ failure to strengthen the VRA was “offensive.”