Two years ago, on June 25, 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act. Tomorrow, congressional Democrats will introduce an ambitious new bill that would restore the important voting-rights protections the Supreme Court struck down. The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 would compel states with a well-documented history of recent voting discrimination to clear future voting changes with the federal government, require federal approval for voter ID laws, and outlaw new efforts to suppress the growing minority vote.
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.”
The 2016 election will be the first in 50 years where voters will not have the full protections of the VRA, which adds urgency to the congressional effort. 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.
In the Shelby County ruling, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down Section 4 of the VRA, the formula that compelled specific states with a long history of voting discrimination to approve their voting changes with the federal government under Section 5 of the VRA. Section 4 covered nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia) and parts of six others (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.