Post-Shelby Cleanup: Bipartisan Effort Aims to Revive Voting Rights Act

Civil rights groups are already analyzing the implications and shortcomings of this “important first step.”

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Supporters of the Voting Rights Act listen to speakers discussing the rulings outside the Supreme Court on June 25, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

When the Supreme Court ruled in its June 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision that a key component of the 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, the responsibility fell to Congress either to fill the gaping hole left by the striking down of the formula used for Section 5’s preclearance requirement or to otherwise update protections against voter discrimination.

On Thursday, in the first post-Shelby effort by a bipartisan group to strengthen the VRA, Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) plan to introduce the Voting Rights Act Amendment of 2014, The Nation reports.

The court’s 5-4 decision in Shelby struck down Section 4, which outlines the formula dictating which parts of the country were required to obtain federal approval—or “preclearance”—before they could make changes to their election laws. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the formula, originally created to combat Southern officials’ efforts to make it more difficult for blacks to vote, was “unconstitutional in light of current conditions” and based on “decades-old data and eradicated practices.”

Meanwhile, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in her dissent that discrimination had declined precisely because of the effectiveness of the VRA, and critics of the decision argued that it flew in the face of evidence of ongoing disenfranchisement—from long poll lines in areas with high percentages of minority voters to Republican legislators’ admitted efforts to target black and Democratic voters through disciminatory voter-ID laws.

Before Shelby, the Supreme Court had repeatedly upheld the entire Voting Rights Act, holding as recently as 1999 that its preclearance requirement remained an effective tool to combat a legacy of efforts to disenfranchise racial minorities.

Many analysts doubted that the current Congress could reach agreement on how and where to require federal oversight for voting changes.

Voting-rights advocates are cautiously optimistic about the proposal unveiled today. “Although not perfect, this bill is an important first step,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal and Educational Fund, which intervened in Shelby on behalf of African-American residents of Shelby County, Ala., whose voting rights it said were directly affected by the case. “There is much more work for Congress, civil rights groups and communities to do.”

Among other provisions, the proposed legislation reportedly includes a new mechanism that identifies places with the worst voting-discrimination records and requires them to receive pre-implementation review of changes in their voting policies; a provision that enhances the ability of those who challenge voting changes based on the likelihood that they’ll be discriminatory to obtain preliminary injunctive relief; a provision allowing for expanded federal court authority to order pre-implementation review for jurisdictions that have been found to discriminate against voters; and a requirement for nationwide notification of potential voting changes.

According to the Advancement Project, the bill’s restoration of the federal preclearance requirement for states that have had at least five voting-rights violations within the past 15 years would appear to require Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana to obtain preclearance before implementing voting changes. However, the civil rights organization also predicts that states such as Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Florida would not be automatically covered.

“The exclusion of North Carolina is especially egregious, considering the flood of harmful voting policies from the state,” said Advancement Project Co-Director Penda D. Hair in a statement released on Thursday. “These measures include a 2012 redistricting plan that diluted the power of African-American voters; the passage of a voter-suppression law that cut early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration and requires strict voter ID, among many other restrictions; and last week’s decision that residents of the 12th Congressional District will be forced to go 300 days without representation.”

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