With the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 approaching later this summer, congressional Democrats filed legislation Wednesday to update and fix the landmark law they believe was gutted by the Supreme Court two years ago.
In 2013, the high court’s ruling in Shelby County, Alabama vs Holder outlawed a key part of the law, a requirement that certain states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls “preclear” any changes to voting laws with the federal government before implementing them.
Many members of Congress are concerned about rights being curtailed in some states after that ruling through strict voter ID laws and other measures.
“It’s important to fix a decision of the United States Supreme Court and make it easier, make it simple, for all of our people to participate in a democratic process,” said Rep. John Lewis, one of the sponsors of the bill. “Open it up and let people come in. We’ve got to do it. We’ve got to do it before the next election. We cannot have the long lines, we cannot have the ID’s, we’ve got to do it.”
Sponsors say the companion bills in the House and Senate target “voting practices known to suppress the voting rights of minorities and the disabled.”
Among other things, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 would expand the attorney general’s authority to request federal observers at the polls and it would establish a new geographic formula for deciding which states need the federal government’s permission to change voting laws, using a “rolling” nationwide trigger.
Only states that have been found to have repeated voting rights violations in the preceding 25 years would be subject to the pre-clearance requirement for a period of 10 years.
“The Voting Rights Advancement Act is a voting rights bill for all Americans,” said Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee and a sponsor, in a statement. “It is a bill for the next generation, and helps protect the legacy of the previous generation who fought so hard five decades ago for these voting rights protections.”
Earlier this year, Congress passed a bill to honor the thousands of people who marched for voting rights in Selma 50 years ago with a congressional gold medal, Congress’ highest civilian honor. The bill drew broad bipartisan support, but that support may not extend to efforts to pass an update to the Voting Rights Act.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Alabama, a sponsor of the bill whose district includes Selma, urged congressional action.
“There is an urgent need to protect the progress we have made since the courageous Foot Soldiers of the Voting Rights Movement dared to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago. We have inherited their legacy, and the fight to ensure that all Americans can participate in our political process continues today,” Sewell said.
Photos: History of the Voting Rights Act
“The updated coverage formula in this bill will ensure that states, like Alabama, are required to obtain federal preclearance for changes to voting practices and procedures that could have a discriminatory impact,” she said. “Alabama has a storied history of voter suppression, and it is ironic that the same state that launched the voting rights movement has become fertile ground for its demise.”
The new bill is just the latest of several efforts to pass similar legislation. In February, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and John Conyers, D-Michigan, both members of the House Judiciary Committee, introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015, a bill aimed at updating and strengthening the law.
Among other things, it would require greater transparency in elections so that voters are made aware of changes to voting laws and set up a new nationwide coverage formula that would require states or jurisdictions to preclear changes to voting laws if they have a persistent record of voting rights violations over the last 15 years. It was not taken up. Sensenbrenner and Conyers introduced the same bill in the last Congress and while it garnered support from then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia.
That bill also went nowhere. It is not at all clear that the current effort will be more successful.
Earlier this year, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Virginia, which has jurisdiction over the bill in the lower chamber, told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast he believed the Voting Rights Act was sufficient as it stands.
A spokesperson for the committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law in August of 1965 and it has been reauthorized four times since, most recently by President George Bush in 2006, after it passed both chambers with overwhelming support.