Congress is taking the first steps toward bringing back pre-clearance of voting laws under the Voting Rights Act this week, as activists express tempered optimism in lawmakers’ willingness and ability to act.
The U.S. Supreme Court last month tossed out the Voting Rights Act’s formula that determined which jurisdictions must submit their voting law changes to the federal government before enacting them. The 5-4 ruling did not get rid of pre-clearance altogether but said Congress must come up with an updated standard to enforce it rather than the 1965 version that covered Georgia and other Deep South states with a history of overt discrimination.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will kick off the congressional response with a hearing Wednesday featuring Congress’ civil rights conscience: Atlanta Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis.
A House Judiciary subcommittee will follow Thursday with another hearing. At this point, no bills have been introduced, and civil rights groups are still discussing what to put forth and how to nudge the process along. They are weighing the political realities in a Congress where the Republican-run House and Democrat-controlled Senate often are light-years apart.
“That’s why this is a delicate operation and why I think the plan has to be very carefully crafted,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “Even with really substantial bipartisan majorities in the last re-authorization seven years ago, it is a different Congress.”
Preparing for an inevitable court challenge, Congress compiled thousands of pages of testimony and other legislative records to support the 2006 Voting Rights Act re-authorization. U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the leading Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he does not expect anything approaching that lengthy record-building.
“Before, we had to look at the whole bill, all the sections and all the states,” Conyers said. “Now we don’t have that problem. So I think it will run much smoother. But I do see another problem is that the partisanship of the committee now is such that … we would not get the kind of cooperation that would lead us to being able to agree on who should still be covered.”
Discriminatory voting laws are still subject to a lawsuit under Section 2 of the act, but for the moment there is no formula for certain jurisdictions to submit proposed laws – anything from a voter ID requirement to moving a polling place – to the federal government for pre-approval.