Bipartisanship Having Failed…Dems Offer Their Own VRA Fix

Speaking of the Supreme Court, you may recall that two years ago tomorrow, a 5-4 conservative majority of SCOTUS punched a big hole in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Court effectively eliminated the requirement that states with a history of discrimination get a “preclearance” from the U.S. Justice Department for changes in law or procedure affecting voting rights

At the time Shelby County v. Holder came down, there was initially some talk about bipartisan action to “fix” the VRA, mostly led by the genuinely well-meaning Rep. James Sensenbrenner, but fed by comments from then-House GOP Majority Leader Eric Cantor suggesting the GOP congressional leadership wanted to make this a priority. Then, for two years: crickets.

So now congressional Democrats are tired of waiting for the GOP to show some interest, even as GOP-controlled state governments trip over each other in enacting voting restrictions.

As Ari Berman notes at The Nation, a new bill will be introduced tomorrow

The legislation will be formally introduced tomorrow by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and leaders of the Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, and Asian Pacific American Caucus in the House. Civil-rights icon Representative John Lewis will be a co-sponsor. The bill is much stronger than the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA), Congress’s initial response to the Supreme Court’s decision, which garnered bipartisan support in the House but was not embraced by the congressional Republican leadership, which declined to schedule a hearing, let alone a vote, on the bill.

“The previous bill we did in a way to try and get bipartisan support—which we did,” Senator Leahy told me. “We had the Republican majority leader of the House [Eric Cantor] promise us that if we kept it like that it would come up for a vote. It never did. We made compromises to get [Republican] support and they didn’t keep their word. So this time I decided to listen to the voters who had their right to vote blocked, and they asked for strong legislation that fully restores the protections of the VRA.”

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It’s not like waiting around forever for GOP interest in a “fix” didn’t have a psychological cost:

The legislation will be formally introduced tomorrow by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and leaders of the Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, and Asian Pacific American Caucus in the House. Civil-rights icon Representative John Lewis will be a co-sponsor. The bill is much stronger than the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA), Congress’s initial response to the Supreme Court’s decision, which garnered bipartisan support in the House but was not embraced by the congressional Republican leadership, which declined to schedule a hearing, let alone a vote, on the bill.

Since the Shelby decision, onerous new laws have been passed or implemented in states like North Carolina and Texas, which have disenfranchised thousands of voters, disproportionately those of color. In the past five years, 395 new voting restrictions have been introduced in 49 states, with half the states in the country adopting measures making it harder to vote. “If anybody thinks there’s not racial discrimination in voting today, they’re not really paying attention,” Senator Leahy said.

If Republicans really are rethinking their attitudes about racial discrimination after the terrorist attack in Charleston, a definite sign of good faith would be to show some renewed interest in voting rights. But don’t hold your breath.

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.