Today Representatives Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last June invalidating a critical section of the VRA. The legislation, known as “The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014,” represents the first attempt by a bipartisan group in Congress to reinstate the vital protections of the VRA that the Supreme Court took away.
In the Shelby County v. Holder ruling on June 25, 2013, the Court’s conservative majority struck down Section 4 of the VRA, the formula that compelled specific states with a well-documented history of voting discrimination to clear their voting changes with the federal government under Section 5 of the VRA. The two provisions were always meant to work together; without Section 4, Section 5 became a zombie, applying to zero states.
Section 4 covered nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) and parts of six others (in California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota) based on evidence of voting discrimination against blacks and other minority groups dating back to the 1960s and 1970s. Since the Shelby decision, eight states previously covered under Section 4 have passed or implemented new voting restrictions. This includes onerous new laws in states like North Carolina and Texas, which the Justice Department objected to under other provisions of the VRA (Sections 2 and 3).
The Sensenbrenner-Conyers-Leahy bill strengthens the VRA in five distinct ways:
1: The legislation draws a new coverage formula for Section 4, thereby resurrecting Section 5. States with five violations of federal law to their voting changes over the past fifteen years will have to submit future election changes for federal approval. This new formula would currently apply to Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Local jurisdictions would be covered if they commit three or more violations or have one violation and “persistent, extremely low minority turnout” over the past fifteen years.
The formula is based on a rolling calendar, updated with a current fifteen-year time period to exempt states who are no longer discriminating or add new ones who are, creating a deterrent against future voting rights violations. It’s based on empirical conditions and current data, not geography or a fixed time period—which voting rights advocates hope will satisfy Chief Justice John Roberts should the new legislation be enacted and reach the Supreme Court.
The new Section 4 proposal is far from perfect. It does not apply to states with an extensive record of voting discrimination, like Alabama (where civil rights protests in Selma gave birth to the VRA), Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, which were previously subject to Section 5. Nor does it apply to states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that have enacted new voting restrictions in the past few years.
Moreover, Department of Justice objections to voter ID laws will not count as a new violation. Voter ID laws can still be blocked by DOJ 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. [UPDATE: The preceding paragraphs were updated to reflect a correction. DOJ objections against voter ID laws will not count as a new violation, but federal court judgments will. So, from a voting rights perspective, this exemption is not as bad as previously reported.]
2: The legislation strengthens Section 3 of the VRA, which has been described as the Act’s “secret weapon.” Under Section 3, jurisdictions not covered by Section 4 could be “bailed-in” to federal supervision, but plaintiffs had to show evidence of intentional voting discrimination, which is very difficult to do in court. Under the new Section 3 proposal, any violation of the VRA or federal voting rights law—whether intentional or not—can be grounds for a bail-in, which will make it far easier to cover new states. (One major caveat, again, is that court objections to voter ID laws that are not found to be intentionally discriminatory cannot be used as grounds for “bail-in” under Section 3.)
3: The legislation mandates that jurisdictions in all fifty states have to provide notice in the local media and online of any election procedures related to redistricting, changes within 180 days of a federal election and the moving of a polling place. This will make it easier for citizens to identify potentially harmful voting changes in the forty-six states not subject to Sections 4 and 5.
4: The legislation makes it easier to seek a preliminary injunction against a potentially discriminatory voting law. Plaintiffs will now only have to show that the hardship to them outweighs the hardship to the state if a law is blocked in court pending a full trial. There will be a preliminary injunction hearing on North Carolina’s voting law in July 2014, before the full trial takes place July 2015.
5: The legislation reaffirms that the attorney general can send federal observers to monitor elections in states subject to Section 4 and expands the AG’s authority to send observers to jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against language minority groups, which includes parts of twenty-five states.
The bill is certain to have its critics, including on the left. Voting rights supporters will argue, justifiably, that the new Section 4 formula does not apply to enough states and wrongly treats voter ID laws differently than other discriminatory voting changes. Despite these flaws, the legislation represents a significant improvement over the disastrous post-Shelby status quo, which has seen states like North Carolina and Texas rush to pass or implement blatantly discriminatory voting restrictions after being freed from federal oversight. The legislation strengthens voting rights protections in a number of tangible ways and gives the federal government and voting rights advocates new tools to combat voting discrimination.
The sponsors of the bill have a lot of credibility on this issue. Sensenbrenner, as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, shepherded through the 2006 reauthorization of the VRA—which passed 390-33 in the House and 98-0 in the Senate. Conyers first entered Congress in 1965, the year of the VRA’s passage, and has served on the House Judiciary Committee ever since. Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has recently worked with Sensenbrenner on reforming the NSA.
The problem of contemporary voting discrimination ultimately requires a solution that only Congress can provide. It was Congress, after all, that passed the VRA in 1965 in response to the failure of litigation to stop the mass disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. Yes, yes, I realize that a Congress that can scarcely do more than name a Post Office nowadays is not likely to resurrect the VRA any time soon—especially when so much of the GOP is devoted to erecting new barriers to the ballot box. But now that there’s legislation on the table, members of Congress face a choice: Do you want to make it easier or harder for people to vote? The question, and answer, is really that simple.
Read Next: Ari Berman on why the Voting Rights Act is still needed.