Politics

Democrats Unveil Bill To Restore Gutted Voting Rights Act

CREDIT: AP

On the eve of the second anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to strip the Voting Rights Act of one of its strongest provisions, Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing a new bill to restore federal oversight in states and counties with a history of discrimination and voter suppression.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 goes far beyond the version introduced in 2014, which would have only required four states — Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — to get pre-clearance from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws. It was also widely criticized by voting rights advocates for a special carve-out for voter ID laws, so they don’t count against a state in determining whether they need federal oversight.

But that bill, a compromise aimed at winning support from Republicans, did not even receive a hearing in the House of Representatives, let alone a vote. Even Republicans in Congress who traveled to Selma, Alabama for the 50th anniversary of the attack on voting rights demonstrators known as Bloody Sunday told ThinkProgress they either didn’t support the bill or hadn’t taken time to read it.

Since that bill was introduced in 2014, Republicans have won control of the Senate, and the highest ranking supporter of the measure was voted out of office, setting up voting rights advocates for an even tougher road ahead.

But Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), one of the co-sponsors of the newer, stronger bill, told ThinkProgress that whether or not the bill has a chance of passing, it’s important to try.

“There are politicians here in Washington and around the country who are trying to erect barriers to the right to vote and we have to have an aggressive response,” he said. “Initially, two years ago, you had some Republicans who were with us on this, at least saying the right thing. But since then, a lot of that has broken down, but we have to continue to fight to move forward.”

Indeed, the lead Republican co-sponsor of the last bill, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) explicitly told The Nation that he will not sign on to the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Under the bill, the states with 15 voting rights violations over the past 25 years — or 10 violations if one was statewide — have to get clearance from the Justice Department before making any changes to how they conduct elections. Thirteen states would be initially covered — Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia — and more could be added in the future.

If passed, those states would have to prove that everything from moving a polling place, to new laws making voters show proof of citizenship, to redrawn voting district maps, do not disproportionately burden residents of color.

The new bill would also allow the Attorney General to send federal election monitors to states where there is a risk of voting discrimination.

Casey told ThinkProgress that after seeing his own state pass a voter ID law — later struck down as unconstitutional — that he called “an insult and an abomination,” he believes in pushing for the strongest protections possible despite the current political gridlock.

“It’s better for the country if there’s bipartisanship, but I don’t want to support a bill that’s so watered down that it’s almost meaningless,” he said.

On Thursday, the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder ruling against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, civil rights advocates will rally in Roanoke, Virginia — the district of House Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte. Goodlatte has been one of the main lawmakers to prevent the Voting Rights Act restoration from advancing in Congress, telling reporters he believes such a move is “not necessary.” A few weeks later, activists and faith leaders will take to the streets in Winston-Salem, North Carolina as a lawsuit challenging the state’s voter ID law heads to trial.

Reverend Dr. William Barber with the North Carolina NAACP, the main group challenging the law, told reporters on a conference call Wednesday that because that law was passed right after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, the case will “shine a glaring light” on how badly those protections are needed.

“Our lawsuit challenging this monster voter suppression law will test the strength of the Voting Rights Act today, and what happens in that courtroom will determine what happens in the nation, it will set the course of jurisprudence for many, many years to come,” he said. “We aim expose just how bad the Shelby decision was, and to show the world we will not surrender the most fundamental right of our democracy: the right to vote.”