A few weeks ago Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican representing Wisconsin, pledged that Congress would fix the “preclearance” coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional in June. This was news to most Americans, who haven’t seen their Congress so much as fix a salad together.
In an interview with outgoing NAACP President Ben Jealous at the 50th anniversary ceremony of the March on Washington, Jealous said he felt confident that Congress would fix it “possibly by the end of this year.”
But can Congress really pull this off, and so soon? According to congressional and civil rights leaders, a 2013 fix is well within reach.
This week, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, released a statement in commemoration of the four young black girls who were killed in the September 15, 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where he spelled out what a new Voting Rights Act should look like:
“We must restore the vital protections that were weakened by the Supreme Court’s ruling. We must provide additional remedies for states and counties anywhere in the nation that not only have a history of discriminating against their voters but continue to do so. We must extend the reach of these protections to states that commit serious voting rights violations in the future. We must amend the existing provisions of the Act to make those protections more effective. And we must provide greater transparency for changes to voting procedures so that voters are made aware of these changes.”
In an interview with C-SPAN last month, Leahy suggested that there is broad but silent support among Republicans.
“I’ve talked to [House judiciary committee chair Rep.] Bob Goodlatte, I’ve talked to others, [and] there are several who have said, ‘OK, we’ll help you on it, but don’t put us in the lead,’” said Leahy.
After hearings Sen. Leahy staged on the Voting Rights Act in July for his judiciary committee, the chairman said he was very encouraged that a bipartisan solution was possible, according to a judiciary committee aide who didn’t want to be identified. Since then, Sen. Leahy has been negotiating with many members from both parties on new VRA language, said the aide, and he agrees with Sensenbrenner that legislation should be passed before the end of the year.
In a statement Leahy released on August 27, the judiciary committee chairman said that he planned to introduce new VRA legislation “in the coming weeks.”
One of the people working on that new legislation is Debo Adegbile, the senate judiciary committee’s special counsel who, as an attorney for the NAACP Legal and Educational Defense Fund, argued in defense of the VRA at the Shelby v. Holder U.S. Supreme Court hearings earlier this year. Adegbile transitioned from LDF in May to take the special counsel position with the Senate to continue fighting on the VRA’s behalf.
LDF attorneys are aggressively pushing Congress to reform the act sooner rather than later given the current stifling elections climate in which states like Texas, North Carolina and Florida have swiftly begun enforcing election laws that were previously blocked by Voting Rights Act preclearance protections.
Ryan Haygood, director of LDF’s Political Participation Group, said in an interview with Colorlines.com that he is “very hopeful” about a VRA congressional fix this year.
“The Voting Rights Act case is about protecting voters of color, but it’s also about Congress’s powers to legislate,” said Haygood. “[The U.S. Supreme Court]’s decision limited Congress’s constitutional authority in the arena of voting, so that’s why I think we can take Rep. Sensenbrenner at his word.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York recently said at a Brooklyn press conference that she is working on a new voting rights bill with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights icon who helped make the original VRA possible. At the National Action Network’s “Realize the Dream” rally commemorating the 1963 March on Washington, Rep. Lewis doubled down on his commitment to the VRA saying he was “not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take away” the voting rights legislation he fought and bled for.
Both Lewis and Gillibrand have said they are in talks with Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor about the bill and believe a bipartisan solution is possible.
Still, while Gillibrand has said there is an urgency on the issue, there’s no real mandate for Congress to move on this at all. Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans believe voting discrimination is a problem. But as elections law expert Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told Colorlines.com, Congress isn’t obligated to do anything about it.
“There’s no legal mandate to come back with a formula now,” said Levitt. Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion “is a restriction on what Congress can do if it acts, not a requirement that it act. That is, recognizing that racial discrimination in voting still exists, Congress may act to remedy that problem. But if or when it does, it has to make sure that its legislation is tailored to current conditions.”
Current conditions for the federal government in general show that lawmakers are now heavily embroiled in other major non-elections matters, like the economy and possible military intervention in Syria. But the LDF’s Haygood downplays Congress’s other obligations.
“Congress always has its hands full with many important things,” he said. “But given that the Supreme Court struck down an act of Congress that they labored for 10 months over before reauthorizing, I would say that Congress is taking the decision personally and that restoring VRA is a priority for them, even as they grapple with other matters like Syria and the fiscal crisis.”