House Dems push to revive Voting Rights Act

March 12, 2019

House Democrats made their case Tuesday for reinvigorating the Voting Rights Act, holding a hearing to examine which states and localities would have to face strict federal scrutiny over their voting practices.

The goal is to renew the “preclearance” process in the landmark 1965 law, which until a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 had forced some states to get Justice Department approval before they made any changes, from voter-ID laws to moving polling places across a street.

The justices in 2013 said the government couldn’t keep using a decades-old yardstick for determining which states and localities were covered. Now Democrats want to write a new test that would allow preclearance to begin again.

“We must use this opportunity to promptly craft a legislative solution,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said at Tuesday’s hearing.

One option would be to subject the entire country to preclearance.

“There is support for a need for that kind of protection nationwide,” Catherine Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, responded.

She said voting rights violations are occurring all over the U.S. and not just in states that had been part of the old confederate. She pointed to violations against African American voters in Maine and Chinese American students in New York as examples from non-red states.

But Thomas Saenz, president of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said asking every jurisdiction to go through preclearance could overload the Justice Department, creating a backlog and preventing fast action.

Originally, the preclearance was supposed to last only five years. Congress reauthorized the legislation several times, including most recently in 2006, when the GOP controlled the House and Senate and lawmakers approved a 25-year extension.

States or counties looking to “bail out” of the scrutiny had to show they had no illegal voting practices and did not fail any preclearance tests over the past 10 years.

In 2013, nine states were covered in whole or in part. Most of them were in the south, but counties in Michigan, South Dakota, North Carolina, California, New York and Florida were also still covered.

Texas, one of the states previously subject to federal scrutiny, remains a target by proponents of preclearance.

“Texas is an unrepentant recidivist,” said Ms. Lhamon.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote for the 5-4 majority in the 2013 ruling, said it was unconstitutional to target states based on rules written before most of their residents were born.

“Since that time, Census Bureau data indicate that African-American voter turnout has come to exceed white voter turnout in five of the six States originally covered,” he wrote.

The high court left in place the actual preclearance policy but nixed the formula for deciding who has to comply.

Peyton McCrary, a law professor at George Washington University, told the lawmakers the preclearance provision had allowed jurisdictions an opportunity to examine the needs of minority voters.

“It was efficient. It was educational. It stopped things in its track that were going to be problematic,” Mr. McCrary said.