Voting Rights Advancement Act to update Voting Rights Act of 1965, Democrats say

February 26, 2019

Congressional Democrats announced plans Tuesday to reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, releasing legislation that would restore the Justice Department’s role in vetting voting change.

States and localities would have to get “preclearance” from the Justice Department before implementing new voter-ID laws, cutting polling locations or drawing new electoral maps that change minority voting representation.

The bill would also impose a new formula for identifying particularly egregious states and localities with a history of discrimination, who would be subject to stricter preclearance.

“The Voting Rights Advancement Act will restore the Voting Rights Act’s ability to combat voter discrimination across America,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

She led introduction of the bill in the House, where Democrats hold a majority. Democrats also introduced a companion bill in the Senate, where they are in the minority.

They were moving to patch the 1965 voting law, one of the major pieces of legislation from the civil rights era, which helped guarantee voting rights for millions of people who’d faced discriminatory barriers.

The crux of that law was to single out certain states with a long history of discrimination and force them through the preclearance process.

But the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down the part of the law governing who was deemed discriminatory. A deeply divided court ruled that the criteria were decades old, and didn’t capture major social changes.

The court said Congress could update the criteria though previous efforts to do that have fallen short.

Now, Democrats sense an opportunity after a contentious 2018 election that saw a number of clashes over voter access and particularly voter-ID laws.

“The court practically invited Congress to pass a new section 4 based on more modern tests and that is what this bill does,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, New York Democrat.

The Judiciary Committee, which Mr. Nadler chairs, and the House Administration subcommittee on elections will be holding hearings to collect evidence of specific practices that result in voter discrimination.

“The Supreme Court has told us what to look for,” Mr. Nadler said. “Jurisdictions that do X, Y, and Z are subject to [DOJ oversight] and jurisdictions that don’t are not. What the X, Y, and Z is what we’re looking for.”

The original 1965 law envisioned preclearance would last five years. Congress reauthorized the legislation several times, including most recently in 2006, when the GOP-controlled House and Senate approved a 25-year extension of preclearance.

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.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing the majority opinion in 2013, said the formula was based on voting right infractions incurred in the 1960s.

“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.

Democrats ripped the decision as a grave mistake by the court.

They argue the consequences of the ruling ushered in a new era of voter suppression.

“There are forces in America today that are trying to take us back to another time and another period,” Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon, said.

Democrats’ new legislation would create a new formula based on modern standards looking back at the past 25 years.