(The Root) — In his testimony at a Wednesday Senate Judiciary Committee hearing dedicated to how Congress will rewrite a key part of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down in a recent Supreme Court decision, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) pleaded with members to draft new legislation that would prevent efforts to suppress or dilute minority voting rights.
"In a democracy such as ours, the vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have," said Lewis, who infamously was beaten while marching for voting rights on Selma, Ala.'s Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965.
Lewis said Congress needed to go "back to the drawing table" to rewrite Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which — before it was struck down — detailed the formula used to determine which jurisdictions had to seek Justice Department preapproval or "preclearance" for changes in voting procedures under the act's Section 5.
It was designed to prevent jurisdictions from implementing changes that would unfairly affect minority voters in areas plagued by racism. But in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court's majority said that formula was "based on decades-old data and eradicated practices" and declared it unconstitutional.
At the hearing, the committee also heard testimony from Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2006, the last time Congress reauthorized the VRA. "Shelby County v. Holder severely weakened the election process that both parties have fought to maintain. The court disregarded years of work by Congress," he said. "I did not expect my career to include a third reauthorization of the VRA, but I believe it is a necessary challenge."
Michael A. Carvin of the law firm Jones Day argued that Section 2 of the VRA was sufficient protection against discriminatory voting practices in covered jurisdictions by allowing for litigation against them. He called the preclearance required by Section 5 "gratuitous and unnecessary to vindicate the Constitution's guarantees."
Loyola University Law School professor Justin Levitt disagreed in his testimony, calling litigation "too slow" to challenge discriminatory practices. "Electoral harms are not normal harms, and existing 'normal' remedies do not suffice," he said, challenging Carvin's argument that there are no preclearance requirements for other types of discrimination — like housing or employment.
But NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill, who also provided written testimony for the hearing, told The Root that voting is a unique area. "Say there's a discriminatory plan … even if you prevail in your Section 2 claim, the person who was elected under that discriminatory plan has all the benefits of incumbency," she said.
A House Judiciary Committee panel is set to hold its own hearing on the Voting Rights Act on Thursday.
Lewis urged his colleagues to act quickly to draft legislation that would meet the Supreme Court's requirements, saying, "It is my belief that the Voting Rights Act is needed more than ever. The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were violated, or will be violated; it is the duty of Congress to restore the life and soul to the Voting Rights Act. And we must do it on our watch, at this time."