On anniversary of Shelby v Holder, Democrats introduce bill to restore Voting Rights Act

Two years ago today, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. In the case, Shelby v Holder, the court ruled that the formula used to determine which localities would be subject to “preclearance” requirements — in which changes to election laws have to be submitted to the federal government for review — was out of date.

As argued by the majority, made up of the Court’s four reliably conservative justices and Anthony Kennedy, the Voting Rights Act was passed in light of widespread racial discrimination that prevented black citizens from becoming voters. Now that black voters account for a larger share of the electorate than they did in the ’60s, it must mean that the localities subject to preclearance, largely in the South, aren’t as racist.

As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg countered in her dissent, that argument is “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

And sure enough, it took less than a week after Shelby v Holder for a series of voting rights restrictions to get reintroduced, and later passed, in exactly the states you would expect them to: Texas, North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, to name a few.

However, while the ruling in Shelby v Holder threw out the preclearance requirements that were written into the law, they did not rule that preclearance was unconstitutional in and of itself. Instead, the Court directed Congress to go back and write new preclearance rules to reflect the racial and electoral landscapes of the 2010’s, even if those rules will produce a very, very similar list of localities subject to preclearance as they did in 1965.

And today, Congress will do precisely that: Senator Pat Leahy and Congressman John Lewis will introduce the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 in their respective chambers, which would rewrite preclearance rules so as to restore the part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down two years ago. Under the new law, any state with 15 voting rights violations over the last 25 years, or ten violations if one was statewide, will have to submit new changes to voting laws to the federal government for approval. States on the list would be removed after ten years.

The new rules represent a more data-driven approach to determining which states should be subject to preclearance, and undercut claims that liberals are targeting the South by producing a list that includes New York and California — states that have discriminated against Asian-Americans and Latinos in the recent past.

Voting rights protest, via Michael Fleshman / Flickr

Voting rights protest, via Michael Fleshman / Flickr

Arkansas, Florida and North Carolina are the other new additions to the list of states that would have to submit proposed voting changes to the federal government. Alaska is the only state that would be dropped from the list.

The bill would also require federal approval for any state that enacted specific electoral reforms, including changes to voting requirements (voter ID, proof of citizenship, e.g.), changes to district boundaries that significantly reduce the share of the minority voter population, reduction of bilingual election materials or other reforms that disproportionately affect minority voters.

Of course, it’s unlikely that any of these changes will be enacted by the Republican-controlled Congress, but at least they set the bar where it should be: From Ari Berman at The Nation:

The bill is much stronger than the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA), Congress’s initial response to the Supreme Court’s decision, which garnered bipartisan support in the House but was not embraced by the congressional Republican leadership, which declined to schedule a hearing, let alone a vote, on the bill.

“The previous bill we did in a way to try and get bipartisan support—which we did,” Senator Leahy told me. “We had the Republican majority leader of the House [Eric Cantor] promise us that if we kept it like that it would come up for a vote. It never did. We made compromises to get [Republican] support and they didn’t keep their word. So this time I decided to listen to the voters who had their right to vote blocked, and they asked for strong legislation that fully restores the protections of the VRA.”

As Berman goes on to note, Senator Leahy was unable to find any Republican co-sponsors for his bill despite pre-Shelby reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act passing with overwhelming bipartisan support. As Congressman James Sensenbrenner (R – WI), who sponsored the 2006 Voting Rights Act reauthorization and 2014 VRAA, told The Nation:

Every American needs to know that we understand their right to vote is sacred. However, I stand by the legislation I introduced last Congress. Passing any bill on voting rights will be a Herculean task and there is no chance of succeeding if we abandon our bipartisan approach.

In other words, no dice. The GOP has too much to gain by maintaining states’ rights to disenfranchise minority voters. Restoring preclearance in any way, shape or form would be an admission on their part that there’s a problem in the first place.

And don’t you know that America isn’t racist anymore?


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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