Can the Voting Rights Act Be Saved?

Lawmakers introduce a bipartisan bill to restore Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act on June 25, 2013, Georgia Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights legend, declared it "a sad day" for the movement. In a 5 to 4 decision, the court struck down the provision that required certain states with a history of voting discrimination to get permission from the federal government before making changes to election laws.

Seven months later, Reps. John Conyers (D-Michigan) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) have introduced the Voting Rights Act of 2014

The bipartisan legislation calls for states with at least five voting rights violations in the past 15 years to submit election law changes to the federal government for approval. An objection by the Department of Justice to voter ID laws would not count as a new violation.

Under current circumstances, the formula would apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, but not Alabama, Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which previously were required to seek pre-clearance.

That is a major concern for voting rights activists who, in addition to the Justice Department, are battling discriminatory policies in these and other states, including Pennsylvania.

"The exclusion of North Carolina is especially egregious, considering the flood of harmful voting policies from the state,” said Penda D. Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, which has participated in several court challenges to discriminatory laws. “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."

The good news is that under the bill, the pre-clearance formula would be applied to states nationwide instead of only those with a history of discrimination, but the burden of proof of intentional discrimination is on plaintiffs and objections to voter ID laws will not count.

The legislation also calls for states to provide public notice of voting related changes, such as redistricting or moving a polling place, far in advance of an election to make it easier for individuals and groups to identify policies that could adversely affect voters.

Civil rights groups are applauding the bill, but with the caveat that they consider it to be just a first step or starting point.

"As introduced, this bill does not go far enough in protecting language minorities or voters living in states with restrictive voter ID laws," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Expanding the bill may be asking too much. Although it is a bipartisan piece of legislation, Republican support in both chambers of Congress is no guarantee. It also is unclear.

Rep. Lewis agrees that the bill is imperfect but expressed relief that there has been at least some movement on the issue.

"It is unbelievable, it is almost unreal that we were able to come together so quickly to craft a compromise that both Democrats and Republicans can find a way to support and move forward," he said.

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Follow Joyce Jones on Twitter: @BETpolitichick

(Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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