The Voting Rights Act Fix is In

Civil rights group are giving the bill some side-eye for failing to recognize voter ID laws.

By Brentin Mock Jan 16, 2014

Last September, I wrote that Congress would fix the Voting Rights Act by the end of 2013. That didn’t happen. But today, a bipartisan contingent of the House introduced legislation that would modify VRA’s Section 4 and Section 5, which the U.S. Supreme Court disabled in the Shelby v. Holder ruling last summer.

Section 4 previously provided the coverage formula that captured a number of states and jurisdictions, mostly in the South, that would need to clear election law changes with the federal government ("preclearance") before implementing them. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. The new legislation introduced in the House today by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan employs a different coverage formula that would capture states with five violations of federal civil rights laws over the past 15 years. Under that scenario, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas would fall under the preclearance regime, well below the nine states previously covered.

Other changes include a provision that makes it easier to pull additional jurisdictions under preclearance if they establish a pattern of voting rights violations, and a mandate for all 50 states to notify the public, via the media, about any major election changes at least 120 days before a federal election. Ari Berman has a comprehensive guide to understanding the new VRA legislation over at The Nation. 

The response from civil rights organizations have so far been a mix of praise and cautious criticism.

"As introduced, this bill does not go far enough in protecting language minorities or voters living in states with restrictive voter ID laws," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "We look forward to working with Congress to improve this legislation and are strongly encouraged by this bipartisan unity for protecting voting rights for all.

"While the start of a critical debate on voting, the bill represents a floor, and not a ceiling, for ensuring that elections are free, fair and accessible to all Americans," said Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis. "The proposal introduced today contains some positive steps forward, but we have serious concerns. Legislators must make changes to this bill to ensure all citizens have equal opportunities to participate in our democracy."

One of the major concerns with the legislation is that it excludes voter ID laws as a voting rights violation.

"It is distressing that the bill treats discriminatory voter ID laws differently from other Voting Rights Act violations," said Katherine Culliton-González, Advancement Project’s Director of Voter Protection. "Under the bill, findings of discriminatory voter ID laws are only partially counted as indicators for determining if a state should be required to have voting changes pre-cleared, while other discriminatory voting practices are fully counted. This exception is arbitrary.

The Senate is expected to follow with an identical bill from Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Now comes the fun part — Congress actually has to pass the bills, and during a year mid-term congressional election year, a period when politicians are hesitant to move or pass any legislation. If it does make it through Congress, it will likely look a lot different than the current version, with new amendments, carve-outs, opt-outs and waivers.

Over at Roll Call, Emma Dumain is reporting that rank-and-file Republicans have yet to rally around the new VRA bill, despite support from GOP brass like House Majority leader Eric Cantor.