Voting Rights Gets Capitol Hearings

Congress must develop a new formula to determine which states are engaging in discriminatory voting practices.

Posted: 07/17/2013 10:39 AM EDT

On Wednesday and Thursday, the Senate and the House will respectively begin considering how to move forward with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Congressional lawmakers have been tasked by the U.S. Supreme Court to develop a new formula to determine which states or parts of states must seek pre-clearance from the Justice Department or a federal judicial panel before making changes to voting laws and procedures.

First up was a Senate hearing Wednesday afternoon featuring Georgia Rep. John Lewis. The civil rights icon told BET.com the night before that he would use his personal experience to illustrate the ongoing need for the Voting Rights Act.

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lewis recounted the original Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, when he was brutally beaten by state troopers. The Voting Rights Act was passed later that year.

"[The] Supreme Court decision broke my heart," he said.

Lewis urged his colleagues to continue the fight for voting rights lawmakers began in 1965.

"Who will do what is right, what is just? Who will fulfill our constitutional responsibility?" he asked.

Before the Supreme Court decision, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act was used to establish a formula to identify areas of the country where racial discrimination in voting is more prevalent and must get pre-clearance under Section 5 to make changes to voting laws and procedures.

As a result, Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, and parts of seven other states have had to seek pre-clearance because of a past history of voting rights abuses.

"Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority decision on the landmark legislation the court delivered last month.

"I think we can make some significant amendments to improve the Voting Rights Act and we're looking at several parts, mainly Sections 4 and 5, but also Section 3, the opt-in provision," said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-North Carolina), a former voting rights attorney, in an interview with BET.com.

Under Section 3, Butterfield explained, if a minority citizen can prove an intentional violation of the Voting Rights Act, a court can order changes to an election system and also order that jurisdiction to be covered under Section 5.

"But many of us propose changing the standard of proof to discriminatory results, not necessarily intentional discrimination," Butterfield said.

Section 4, he added, has been gutted completely by the court, and Congress must start over.

"So the first question is, what jurisdictions do you identify, and what is the basis for identifying them," Butterfield said.

He proposes that if any jurisdiction in the country has been sued over the last 20 years under the Voting Rights Act or has been subject to a Section 5 complaint during that period, it would be covered under Section 5. Jurisdictions with a significant minority population that seek to make "structural changes to its election system" also would be subject to preclearance.

"It's a huge challenge to narrowly tailor the revisions because we've got to be able to demonstrate whatever jurisdictions we select are likely to engage in discriminatory conduct. But we can do it," Butterfield said.

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(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

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