WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 06:  U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the state of vaccinations in the U.S. in the State Dining Room of the White House April 6, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden announced that states should make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccine by April 19.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
'Smarten up': Biden admonishes states' restrictive voting laws
01:12 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

The leader of the Justice Department’s civil rights division told Congress Monday that “voting rights are under pressure to an extent that has not been seen since the Civil Rights era.”

US Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke is testifying in front of a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing about voting rights legislation, as the House prepares to move forward a major element of Democrats’ voting rights push.

Her prepared opening statement addressed provisions in the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were gutted by Supreme Court in 2013. House Democrats are preparing to introduce legislation to revive the VRA’s so-called “preclearance” regime, which, before the 2013 ruling, required localities with a history of racial voting discrimination to get the department’s or a federal court’s approval for election procedure changes.

Since that 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Clarke said Monday, according to her written testimony “We have seen an upsurge in changes to voting laws that make it more difficult for minority citizens to vote and that is even before we confront a round of decennial redistricting where jurisdictions may draw new maps that have the purpose of effect of diluting or retrogressing minority voting strength.”

Her testimony called on Congress “to pass appropriate legislation that will restore and improve the Voting Rights Act, enhancing the department’s ability to protect the right to vote in the twenty-first century and beyond.”

Legislation to restore the preclearance process – a bill known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – has long been in the works. That bill is in addition to the For the People Act, which would establish nationwide ballot access mandates like expanded mail voting and early voting, while requiring that states adopt independent redistricting commissions.

The For the People Act passed in the House but it is stalled in the Senate, while the John Lewis bill is expected to be taken up by the House later this month. Pieces of both bills are being considered in Senate negotiations for a voting rights package that would win the support of West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin. But even with his support, a filibuster by Senate Republicans will keep the voting rights legislation from reaching President Joe Biden’s desk. Manchin and other Democratic centrists have balked at changing the filibuster rules.

Even in the face of the legislative obstacles, the Biden administration has made voting rights a top priority. Clarke, who started her legal practice as a career attorney in the DOJ’s voting section, is one of three attorneys with deep voting rights experience that Biden appointed to top DOJ roles.

Clarke, in her testimony, emphasized the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act when the preclearance regime was fully functional. Under it, 3,000 voting changes were blocked for their discriminatory intent or effect between 1965 and 2013, according to her written testimony. Still, Clarke said, that was only one percent of all the changes the department considered, and jurisdictions were otherwise able “to institute new voting changes or rules without interference.”

She reiterated what Attorney General Merrick Garland alluded to in a recent Washington Post op-ed: that while the Justice Department has the authority to challenge individual laws that threaten voting rights – the DOJ sued the state of Georgia this summer – case by case challenges aren’t adequate since litigation is complex, requires vast resources, and is too time intensive to adequately address inequities fast enough.

Her testimony also addressed what the absence of a preclearance regime means for the coming redistricting cycle, which will be the first redistricting cycle since the 2013 Supreme Court decision.

“Without preclearance, the department will not have access to maps and other redistricting-related information from many jurisdictions where there is reason for concern,” she said.

CNN’s Lauren Fox contributed to this report.