A bipartisan, bicameral group of congressional lawmakers has introduced legislation to update the Voting Rights Act, one of the central victories in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) recently introduced H.R .3899, the Voting Rights Amendment Act, in the House. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will file a companion bill in the upper chamber.
The legislation arose out of a June 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder that struck down Section 4 of the VRA. That key provision determined which jurisdictions would be covered by Section 5 of the law, which requires states with a history of discrimination against minority voters to obtain federal pre-clearance before implementing new election laws.
“Through months of negotiation and compromise, Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Conyers and I have agreed on a bipartisan and bicameral proposal to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision last summer,” Leahy said in a statement. “Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied his or her constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color. We believe that this is a strong bipartisan bill that accomplishes this goal and that every member of Congress can support.”
According to the new nationwide coverage formula set out in the bill, a state will be covered by Section 5 if it commits five voting violations in the last 15 years and at least one of the violations is committed by the state itself. A political subdivision within a state can be covered if it commits three voting violations in the most recent 15 years or commits one violation in that period and has had “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout.”
The state or subdivision will be covered for 10 years unless they obtain a “bail-out.”
Civil rights groups hailed the bipartisan effort to update the historic legislation.
“We are highly gratified that Congress has worked so diligently in a bipartisan manner to address the issues that allows us to modernize Section 4 and other parts of the Voting Rights Act,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington bureau chief and senior vice president for advocacy and policy.
Shelton told the AFRO he believes “strongly” that the bill “would pass constitutional muster.” However, he added, activists do have some concerns.
While most of the 16 states wholly or partially covered by Section 5 hail from the South, “as we watched the last few elections we saw big problems in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania that were not covered by the law,” he said. “We’d like to continue working with lawmakers to amend some parts of the bill to expand coverage [to such jurisdictions.]”
First signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, the VRA has been reauthorized four times in the intervening years, usually with bipartisan support.
Conyers, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and a cosponsor of the original VRA legislation, said he was glad to again do his part to bolster voting rights in America.
“After being sworn in as freshman member of the 89th Congress, the first vote of consequence that I took was for the Voting Rights Act,” he said in a statement. “Although the Shelby County v. Holder decision struck at the heart of the Act, today, it is with much pride that my colleagues and I are introducing a strengthened and renewed Voting Rights Act to reaffirm our constitutional commitment to the cornerstone of our democracy: the right to vote.”
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