A bipartisan group of lawmakers took the first step Thursday to patch a gaping hole in the 1965 Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court eviscerated a key part of the law that allowed for federal oversight of states with a history of ballot box discrimination.
The bill, known as the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, has been sponsored in the House by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., and in the Senate by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Chris Coons, D-Del. Their proposal includes several important provisions:
- a trigger to bring states under federal pre-approval for election changes if those states have five or more voting rights violations over the past 15 years.
- a way to allow courts to require federal oversight for states even if the Justice Department or private litigants can't demonstrate intentional discrimination at the ballot box.
- a requirement for states to provide broad public notice of voting changes such as redistricting and moving of polling places so the public gets early warning of potential problems.
- a statement that makes clear states can continue to pass photo ID laws that are "reasonable."
Six months after a divided Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to throw out the formula for covering states with a record of discrimination, a wide array of civil rights groups offered praise for any congressional effort to fix the situation. But many of those advocates expressed reservations too. Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, pointed out the proposal "does not go far enough in protecting language minorities or voters living in states with restrictive voter ID laws."
Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, said the new system for covering states with recent histories of discrimination apparently includes Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana. But she added that new standard could leave out Alabama, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Florida.
"The exclusion of North Carolina is especially egregious, considering the flood of harmful voting policies from the state," Hair said. "These measures include a 2012 redistricting plan that diluted the power of African-American voters; the passage of a voter suppression law that cut early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration, and requires strict voter ID, among many other restrictions; and last week's decision that residents of the 12th Congressional District will be forced to go 300 days without representation."
The Justice Department has sued Texas and North Carolina under a remaining part of the 1965 voting rights law, but Attorney General Eric Holder has said the government must meet a high bar in order to win those cases. The burden of proof — and the sometimes exorbitant litigation costs — now rests with the federal government, not the states under scrutiny.
Earlier this week, Stanford University law professor Pamela Karlan joined DOJ to work on voting rights issues, including a way forward after last year's Supreme Court defeat. And Debo Adegbile, the president's nominee to lead the Justice Department Civil Rights unit, had advised Leahy on the new bill as a member of his legislative staff.
The ACLU said it would seek improvements to a "problematic" part of the bill that appears to treat voter ID laws "somewhat less seriously from other voting rights violations." A congressional source suggested to NPR that resulted from a deliberate compromise to try to win Republican support for the plan.
Sensenbrenner, the sole Republican who appeared at the Capitol Hill news conference to debut the proposal, said voter ID laws would not be used "as a predicate for bail-in" of jurisdictions with a history of discrimination because he said those laws "are essential to protecting the integrity of our electoral process and when properly drafted do not have a discriminatory intent or effect."
"I will admit it is not a perfect bill," Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who spoke at the original March on Washington 50 years ago, said. "But it is a necessary and good beginning."
Lewis said it was fitting the legislation was being introduced just as the nation prepares to commemorate the life of Martin Luther King Jr.
Leslie Proll, director of the Washington office of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc., offered a more generous assessment of the new legislative proposal in an email to NPR. "Yes, it is not perfect, but we will work very hard to strengthen it," Proll said. "Congress has never let us down when it comes to the Voting Rights Act."
"We hope legislative leaders will give priority to this issue," said Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center. "The right to vote is the most important right we have as Americans."
Serious questions remain about the bill's chances on Capitol Hill — fueled by polarization in both chambers of Congress, a lack of GOP sponsors in the Senate, and the as-yet-unknown stance of House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.
The conversation on voting is far from over, though. A bipartisan voting commission led by Republican Ben Ginsberg and Democrat Robert Bauer is expected to release its recommendations for improving elections sometime later this month.