Lawmakers last week unveiled bipartisan legislation that would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional.
Written by U.S. Reps. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and John Conyers, D-Mich., and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the bill redraws the formula used to determine which states are required to seek federal approval before changing their voting laws. The Supreme Court in June struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and parts of California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota and Michigan to seek federal pre-clearance of new voting regulations.
The new section would require federal clearance from states in which there have been at least five violations of the Voting Rights Act in the most recent 15 years – with at least one committed by the state itself. Counties and municipalities would be covered in the new formula if found to have committed three Voting Rights Act violations in the most recent 15 years.
It would give federal courts more latitude to determine violations, allowing judges to cite not just intentional violations but also those that effectively result in discrimination even if that was not the intent. The bill also would make it easier to obtain injunctions to stop changes in voting laws.
Under the proposed formula, four states – Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas – would have to get changes to their election laws and procedures approved by the U.S. Justice Department. But a clean voting rights record for 10 years could free states from the pre-clearance requirement.
The bill is a good starting point toward the needed restoration of Section 5 and correctly extends the potential for federal intervention into the election laws of all 50 states, not just those with a history of disenfranchising minority voters.
The legislation is a rare compromise plan crafted across party lines but faces an uncertain future in the partisan gridlock of Congress. Voting is one of the most basic and cherished rights of a democracy, and lawmakers should act to ensure that no state or local government denies its citizens that right.