Voting Rights Act: Congress Rejected Major Changes To Section 5 In 2006 — But Not Without A Fight.

Reply Sun 8 Dec, 2019 10:07 am
Voting Rights Act: Congress Rejected Major Changes To Section 5 In 2006 — But Not Without A Fight.

Published March 11, 2013
Updated June 25, 2013

WASHINGTON — There aren’t too many Republicans loudly demanding that the Supreme Court uphold Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the heart of the landmark law that has made it what is considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in U.S. history. Many Senate Republicans recently professed ignorance on the issue, while others have indicated that they’d be fine if the court rules it unconstitutional.

But in 2006, when Congress reauthorized the VRA (HR 9) for 25 years, Republican members not only voted for the bill and put out statements reaffirming their support — many of them also voted against amendments that would have fundamentally changed Section 5. The road wasn’t completely smooth, however, with some rank-and-file members putting up a fight.

If 2006 is any lesson, expect some hurdles to be put up if the Supreme Court rules Section 5 unconstitutional and sends it to Congress to fix, especially with a more divided Republican Party and lawmakers who now seem unwilling to stand behind their earlier support.

The Voting Rights Act was first passed in 1965, outlawing discriminatory electoral practices. Section 5 — a key provision in the act— requires certain states and localities that have a history of racial discrimination to receive approval from the Justice Department before changing election procedures. A locality can bail out of this requirement if it can prove there has been no voter discrimination for 10 years.

Congress reauthorized the VRA in (2006) with overwhelming bipartisan backing; the vote was 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House.

At the time, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) — who was then the majority leader — praised the VRA as “an effective tool in protecting a right that is fundamental to our democracy.”

But when asked about it recently on “Meet the Press,” he replied, “I think the Voting Rights Act has passed with large majorities in the House and Senate. I think it’s something that has served our country well. But there is argument over a very small section of the Voting Rights Act, and that’s what the court is going to consider.”

Boehner was referring to Section 5. Recently, the provision has stopped Texas from instituting one of the strictest voter ID laws in the nation and forced South Carolina to make changes to its proposed voter ID provision.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) is one of Congress’ most outspoken advocates of the Voting Rights Act. In 2006, Sensenbrenner marshaled his GOP colleagues into passing the reauthorization.

“Republicans have always had a track record of supporting civil rights legislation,” he said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “If you look back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, it was Republican support that overcame southern Democrat opposition.”

Sensenbrenner took issue with Boehner’s characterization of Section 5 being a “small section” of the civil rights law.

“It’s an important part of the Voting Rights Act. If it’s struck down and fixable, Congress has the obligation to fix it,” he said.

“For many of us who are familiar with the statute, we know that Section 5 is the main reason why the Voting Rights Act is the most effective civil rights statute we’ve ever passed in this country,” added Julie Fernandes, who helped lead the civil rights community’s push to reauthorize the VRA while at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in 2006. She is now a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundations.

Boehner’s office did not return a request for additional comment.

Section 5 is what is most at issue before the Supreme Court this term. Observers worry that justices may argue Section 5 is unconstitutional and send it back to Congress to make it easier for states to skirt the requirement or update the formula dictating which areas are subject to preclearance.

In 2006, some members of Congress — especially from those covered by Section 5 — put up a fight when given an opportunity to amend the act.

Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate embraced reauthorization in 2006. But before the vote, then-Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and his lieutenants were “surprised,” according to the Washington Post, when they received pushback from some within the GOP caucus who were upset over how quickly things had moved forward with the reauthorization. As a result, the House Rules Committee agreed to allow votes on two Section 5 amendments.

Rep. Lynn Westmoreland’s (R-Ga.) amendment would have made it easier for jurisdictions to bail out of Section 5’s requirements. Instead of the states and localities having to present evidence that they no longer needed federal oversight, Westmoreland wanted the onus to be on the Justice Department to go through the covered jurisdictions and figure out which ones no longer needed preclearance.

“Congress [should] require that the Justice Department determine which states or counties have long records of voter equality,” wrote Westmoreland in a 2006 Washington Post op-ed. “These jurisdictions would then be freed from Section 5 coverage (just as a handful of Virginia jurisdictions have been exempted from coverage that once included all of Virginia).”

A second amendment would have struck more directly at the heart of Section 5. The late Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) wanted to update the formula that determines which states and localities are covered under the law by basing it on the past three presidential elections: “Any state would be subject to Section 5 if it currently has a discriminatory test in place or voter turnout of less than 50% in any of the three most recent presidential elections,” the amendment read.

Westmoreland’s amendment captured a majority of the Republican caucus; Norwood’s did not. And with enough Democrats voting against them, they were defeated.

Boehner also voted against both amendments, as did conservatives like Reps. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). In the end, the majority of GOP House members ended up voting to reauthorize the VRA, despite the fact that the two amendments failed.

In response to Westmoreland’s amendment, Fernandes argued that the staff in the Justice Department dedicated to enforcing Section 5 is relatively small, and shifting the burden to them to assess every jurisdiction and whether it should be covered would have taken it away from its core mission of making sure discrimination does not happen.

“We thought it was appropriate for the burden to be on the jurisdictions to at least make the initial showing, to say, ‘Hey, I want to bail out, and here is my clean record,’” she argued.

Fernandes argued that in Norwood’s case, the representative bought into the fallacy that Section 5 was trying to solve low voter registration and turnout among minority communities.

“The idea was to end the discrimination itself, not just the symptom of it, which was low registration and turnout,” she said.

Sensenbrenner also argued that just because presidential turnout is high doesn’t mean there isn’t discrimination. Also, he said, turnout tends to be greatest in presidential elections — a significant amount of discrimination can happen in less-visible contests, for school board, sheriff, council and other local positions.

And just because turnout was high in the past doesn’t mean there won’t be discrimination moving forward.

“If you use a high-voter-turnout election — of course presidential elections are always the highest turnout elections — to say that we should loosen our vigilance against discrimination, [that] would mean that in subsequent elections, it would be more difficult for minority voters to vote, and consequently [turnout] would be lower. But by that time, the milk is already spilled and the horse is out of the barn,” said Sesenbrenner.

Sensenbrenner said he never considered either of the two amendments a serious threat.

“I knew we would be able to beat them back,” he said, pointing to the fact that they also defeated Rep. Steve King’s (R-Iowa) amendment mandating that ballots be printed in English only.

If the Supreme Court rules Section 5 is unconstitutional and kicks it back to Congress to amend — an outcome Sensenbrenner says he hopes doesn’t happen — those lawmakers who have so far been uneasy in taking a position on the VRA will have to do so. The debate will occur in a polarized environment that includes varying opinions on long lines at the polls, voter ID laws and allegations of fraud.

Still, Sensenbrenner is confident that if the Supreme Court rules that the law needs to be changed, his colleagues will come around when they are presented with evidence showing why it is still so necessary.

“It was one of the trans-Atlantic passenger shipping lines that said, ‘Getting there is half the fun.’ That’s the experience I’ve had with the Voting Rights Act and all of its mutations since I’ve been in Congress,” Sensenbrenner said. “I think by the time the debate is concluded, there will be a very bipartisan consensus that if there is an amendment needed to Section 5 to keep it viable, the votes will be overwhelming.”

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Real Music
Reply Sat 29 May, 2021 11:53 am
Rep. Clyburn Says Congress Can’t Let Filibuster Prevent Voting Rights Legislation.

South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn joins MSNBC’s host of “American Voices” Alicia Menendez to discuss the path forward with voting rights legislation. Rep. Clyburn says lawmakers can’t let the filibuster get in the way of protecting the right to vote.

Aired on: March 8, 2021

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Real Music
Reply Sat 29 May, 2021 12:50 pm
Voting rights bills remain imperiled in Congress.
Here are the differences among them.

Published: May 18, 2021

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, issued a letter this week urging Congress to find a bipartisan path forward to reauthorize the decades-old Voting Rights Act.

The missive to congressional leaders in the House and Senate seeks to break through the impasse on voting rights legislation as Republican-led states around the country erect new barriers to the ballot box.

"Since enactment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been reauthorized and amended five times with large, bipartisan majorities," the senators wrote. "Protecting Americans' access to democracy has not been a partisan issue for the past 56 years, and we must not allow it to become one now."

But partisan battles have dominated voting rights debates in Washington and in the states, and bipartisan compromise appears elusive on any of the federal voting bills.

Here's a look at the competing election bills in Congress and obstacles to their passage:

For the People Act

These sweeping measures, designated as S.1 in the Senate and H.R.1 in the House, touch on everything from the ground rules for voting to new disclosure requirements for presidents and changes to campaign finance law.

On elections, they would set a federal baseline for election rules and thwart some of the voting restrictions passed in key battleground states this year. Among other things: They would mandate 15 days of early voting and neuter states' strict voter ID requirements by allowing voters casting ballots in federal elections to submit a sworn affidavit instead of identification.

They also would require automatic and same-day voter registration and pre-paid postage on absentee ballots.

Although iterations of the bills have been around for several years, their proponents say the push to clamp down on access to the ballot in Republican-led states give them new urgency.

Republicans in Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, call the push a partisan takeover of elections and show no signs of ever backing the bills -- a problem in a Senate that's divided 50-50 along partisan lines. (Vice President Kamala Harris can break ties, giving Democrats a narrow edge on some matters, such as confirming executive branch nominees.)

"Our democracy is not in crisis," McConnell declared last week during committee debate on the For the People Act, "and we are not going to let one party take over our democracy under the false pretense of saving it."

The For the People Act passed the Democratic-controlled House earlier his year. But it's mired in the Senate, where it lacks Manchin's support and faces a wall of resistance from Republicans. Last week, members of the evenly divided Senate Rules Committee deadlocked 9-9 on moving it out of committee.

Although Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has procedural avenues to bring the bill to the floor, it's unlikely to ever pass unless the 60-vote threshold to overcome a legislative filibuster is dismantled.

And Manchin, along with Republicans and several other moderate Democrats, opposes abandoning the filibuster.

John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

This proposal, named after late Georgia Democratic congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis aims to restore enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It first became law in 1965, shortly after a bloody law enforcement attack on peaceful voting rights activists on a bridge in Selma, Alabama, shocked and shamed the nation into action.

The Voting Rights Act's requirements -- that nine states and parts of others with a history of racial discrimination win federal approval, or "pre-clearance" before changing their election procedures -- were nullified by the Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v Holder decision. (The court didn't strike down pre-clearance but said the law relied on an old formula that needed updating. Congress hasn't agreed on a new formula in the intervening years.)

Soon after the ruling, states began erecting new barriers to voting, ranging from voter ID laws to signature-matching requirements. And those efforts ramped up this year with many Republican-controlled states proposing a raft of new voting restrictions, spurred on by former President Donald Trump's false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.

A recent version of the new John Lewis Act would extend pre-clearance to states that have incurred multiple voting rights violations in the last 25 years -- an attempt to get around the Supreme Court majority's concern in Shelby that states were being punished for decades-old misdeeds, rather than current discriminatory practices.

Although a version of the Voting Rights Act rewrite passed the House in an earlier Congress, the John Lewis Act is not actually a bill right now. Committee hearings to fine-tune its provisions are planned as a precursor to its reintroduction in the House.

Many Democrats and voting rights activists say both the For the People Act and the John Lewis bill are needed.

Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat on the ballot next year in a state that has upended its election rules, is urging passage of both measures. He recently described it this way to reporters, according to The Washington Post: "The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act builds for us the fire station to protect us against future fires. But the house of democracy, as a result of these voter suppression bills all across the country, is on fire right now."

Voting Rights Act update

Manchin wants Congress to focus on passing an update of the Voting Rights Act.

In their letter Monday to House and Senate leaders, Manchin and Murkowski urged Congress to pass a version of the bill that could garner bipartisan support.

"Inaction is not an option," they wrote. "Congress must come together -- just as we have done time and again -- to reaffirm our longstanding bipartisan commitment to free, accessible, and secure elections for all."

Manchin has offered some clues of what the bill should look like. He told ABC News last week that the pre-clearance provisions should extend to all 50 states and territories -- not just those with a history of racial discrimination.

That could help address another concern of the majority in the Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act in the first place: that the law imposed unequal burdens on states, by subjecting only some states to federal review. But the court's makeup has shifted even more to the right since 2013, with a new 6-3 conservative majority.

And Manchin's insistence that Congress advance a new version of the Voting Rights Act may get nowhere unless he's willing to budge on the filibuster. After all, Murkowski was the only Republican in the Senate to co-sponsor the Voting Rights Act rewrite in the last Congress.

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