Bipartisan ‘fix’ to the Voting Rights Act filed in Congress

Posted by AzBlueMeanie:

Ari Berman at The Nation reports, Members of Congress Introduce a New Fix for the Voting Rights Act:

Today Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) will introduce legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last June invalidating a critical section of the VRA. The legislation, known as “The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014,” represents the first attempt by a bipartisan group in Congress to reinstate the vital protections of the VRA that the Supreme Court took away.

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The Sensenbrenner-Conyers-Leahy bill strengthens the VRA in five distinct ways:

1: The legislation draws a new coverage formula for Section 4, thereby resurrecting Section 5. States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would currently apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Local jurisdictions would be covered if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” over the past fifteen years.

The formula is based on a rolling calendar, updated with a current fifteen-year time period to exempt states who are no longer discriminating or add new ones who are, creating a deterrent against future voting rights violations. It’s based on empirical conditions and current data, not geography or a fixed time period—which voting rights advocates hope will satisfy Chief Justice John Roberts should the new legislation be enacted and reach the Supreme Court.

The new Section 4 proposal is far from perfect. It does not apply to states with an extensive record of voting discrimination, like Alabama (where civil rights protests in Selma gave birth to the VRA), Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which were previously subject to Section 5. Nor does it apply to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have enacted new voting restrictions in the past few years.

Moreover, rulings against voter ID laws—like in Texas in 2012—will not count as a new violation. Voter ID laws can still be blocked by the Department of Justice or federal courts in the new states covered under Section 4, but that will not be included as one of the five violations needed to keep the state covered. This exemption for voter ID laws was written to win the support of House majority leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans.

2: The legislation strengthens Section 3 of the VRA, which has been described as the Act’s “secret weapon.” Under Section 3, jurisdictions not covered by Section 4 could be “bailed-in” to federal supervision, but plaintiffs had to show evidence of intentional voting discrimination, which is very difficult to do in court. Under the new Section 3 proposal, any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law—whether intentional or not—can be grounds for a bail-in, which will make it far easier to cover new states. (One major caveat, again, is that court objections to voter ID laws cannot be used as grounds for “bail-in” under Section 3.)

3: The legislation mandates that jurisdictions in all fifty states have to provide notice in the local media and online of any election procedures related to redistricting changes within 120 days before a federal election and the moving of a polling place. This will make it easier for citizens to identify potentially harmful voting changes in the forty-six states not subject to Sections 4 and 5.

4: The legislation makes it easier to seek a preliminary injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law. Plaintiffs will now only have to show that the hardship to them outweighs the hardship to the state if a law is blocked in court pending a full trial. There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on North Carolina’s voting law in July 2014, before the full trial takes place July 2015.

5: The legislation reaffirms that the attorney general can send federal observers to monitor elections in states subject to Section 4 and expands the AG’s authority to send observers to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against language minority groups, which includes parts of twenty-five states.

The bill is certain to have its critics, including on the left. Voting rights supporters will argue, justifiably, that the new Section 4 formula does not apply to enough states and wrongly treats voter ID laws differently than other discriminatory voting changes. Despite these flaws, the legislation represents a significant improvement over the disastrous post-Shelby status quo, which has seen states like North Carolina and Texas rush to pass blatantly discriminatory voting restrictions after being freed from federal oversight. The legislation strengthens voting rights protections in a number of tangible ways and gives the federal government and voting rights advocates new tools to combat voting discrimination.

The sponsors of the bill have a lot of credibility on this issue. Sensenbrenner, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, shepherded through the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA—which passed 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. Conyers first entered Congress in 1965, the year of the VRA’s passage, and has served on the House Judiciary Committee ever since. Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has recently worked with Sensenbrenner on reforming the NSA.

The problem of contemporary voting discrimination ultimately requires a solution that only Congress can provide. It was Congress, after all, that passed the VRA in 1965 in response to the failure of litigation to stop the mass disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. Yes, yes, I realize that a Congress that can scarcely do more than name a Post Office nowadays is not likely to resurrect the VRA any time soon—especially when so much of the GOP is devoted to erecting new barriers to the ballot box. But now that there’s legislation on the table, members of Congress face a choice: Do you want to make it easier or harder for people to vote? The question, and answer, is really that simple.

Spencer Overton provides a nutshell summary at Electionlawblog. com, What the New Voting Rights Act Bill Means:

The proposed legislation is just a first draft, but it shows that a bipartisan Voting Rights Act is possible.  In a nutshell, here’s what it means . . . .

Recent Discrimination:  The new bill responds to the Supreme Court’s Shelby County opinion by tying preclearance to recent instances of discrimination (both with the new coverage formula and enhanced bail-in).

Deterrence:  Pre-Shelby preclearance deterred bad activity in all or parts of 15 states because politicians knew their voting changes would be reviewed.  The new bill will deter bad activity nationwide by requiring that all states and localities provide notice of election changes.

Preventing Harm to Voters:  Preclearance stops unfair election rules before they are used in an election and harm voters.  The new bill attempts to stop unfair election rules before they harm voters by making it easier to obtain a preliminary injunction to block unfair rules.

Time to contact your Congress critters to demand passage of amendments to the Voting Rights Act to set aside Shelby County v. Holder. This country needs a strong, effective and enforceable Voting Rights Act.

We also need a constitutional amendment that guarantees to citizens the fundamental right to vote.

UPDATE: Ian Milhiser at Think Progress breaks it down. Here’s The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly About The Bipartisan Bill To Restore The Voting Rights Act.

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