Voting Rights Act “Fix:” What Will the Party of Lincoln Do?

As noted at Lunch Buffet, the long-awaited bipartisan and bicameral legislation responding to the damage done to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Shelby County ruling last year has been unveiled by cosponsors James Sensenbrenner and John Conyers from the House and Pat Leahy from the Senate. Thanks to a thorough summary from Ari Berman at The Nation, we can get an idea of what the bill would and wouldn’t fix.

The biggest item is the re-establishment of Section 4 of the VRA, which identifies jurisdictions with a pattern of minority voting rights violations sufficient to subject them to the crucial Section 5 “preclearance” requirement (meaning that significant changes in voting procedures or district boundaries have to be “precleared” by the Justice Department before taking effect). Under a new formula tailored to meet SCOTUS’ objections to the original Section 4, only four states–Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas–would be initially subject to Section 5. But other states–and local jurisdictions–could be added if fresh violations are documented.

Other highly technical but potentially significant “fixes” will make it easier for those alleging voting rights violations to obtain quick information on potential violations, and to obtain a preliminary injunction against violations. Perhaps most importantly, plaintiffs suing under the “individual remedy” avenue of Section 3 no longer have to show intent to discriminate to get into court.

But there’s a big hole in the entire enforcement scheme, Berman notes:

[R]ulings against voter ID laws—like in Texas in 2012—will not count as a new violation. Voter ID laws can still be blocked by the Department of Justice or federal courts in the new states covered under Section 4, but that will not be included as one of the five violations needed to keep the state covered. This exemption for voter ID laws was written to win the support of House majority leader Eric Cantor and other Republicans.

Even with this big exemption for the most popular current voter suppression technique, Republican support–much less a commitment to move the bill–is still hazy at best, report Roll Call‘s Dumain and Newhouser:

The effort does not yet have full buy-in from Republican leadership, said a senior GOP aide. Leaders are wary of push back from conservative members and are skeptical that the bill could attract the support of a majority of the Republican Conference. They are also concerned that Democrats would politicize the issue to make gains in the 2014 midterm elections.

This last concern, of course, is only relevant if Republicans (with the most crucial figure being House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of VA) block the bill. I wouldn’t put a lot of hope in the Party of Lincoln coming through on this subject, but at least Sensenbrenner is showing some leadership.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.