Mike Norman

Action on voting rights not coming in Congress

When the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act a year ago, the justices were very specific about what was wrong and what it would take to restore the landmark 1965 law.

Twelve months later, the fix hasn’t happened and there’s no reason to believe it will. Bipartisan sponsors have introduced legislation in the House and Senate, but partisanship has pretty much taken over and there’s little to no forward movement.

But supporters of a fix say the past 12 months have seen a rebirth of discrimination and voting disenfranchisement that must be addressed.

The atmosphere of racial politics was highly charged in 1965. Three voting-rights activists had been murdered in Mississippi the previous summer, and Alabama state troopers launched an unprovoked attack on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

President Lyndon B. Johnson called for a strong voting rights law, and he got it.

Section 2 of the act targeted any “standard, practice or procedure” (like literacy tests, moral character requirements or sponsorship from another voter) that “results in a denial or abridgement” of voting rights on account of race or color.

Sections 4 and 5 added sanctions against some states and political subdivisions. Although those sanctions were renewed and even expanded by Congress several times in the ensuing years, they brought court tests and eventually resulted in last year’s Supreme Court ruling.

These “preclearance” provisions initially required seven states and parts of four others, all with a history of racial discrimination and low voter registration or turnout, to obtain prior approval from the Justice Department or a federal court for any new voting requirements or procedures.

Section 4(b) set up the formula for determining which states or other jurisdictions should be on the list. Texas was added in 1975.

There were also provisions for removing the preclearance requirement.

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Preclearance was inserted into the law because Justice Department efforts to eliminate discrimination in election practices case by case weren’t working.

As soon as one practice was proved to be unconstitutional and was blocked by a court, the Justice Department says, “a new one would be substituted in its place and litigation would have to start anew.”

Congress last renewed the act in 2006, but it left the old preclearance formula in place.

Soon, in a case involving an Austin utility district, the high court resolved the litigation on other grounds but expressed concern about the old formula, saying the Voting Rights Act “imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs.”

Last year, the justices noted improvements in voter registration rates, election turnout and minority representation in government.

They struck down the old formula, saying a new one would be needed that takes current conditions into account.

The Voting Rights Amendment Act, introduced in the House and Senate in January, would require preclearance in any state with five or more voting-rights violations in the previous 15 years (which includes Texas).

Any political subdivision of a state would be subjected to individual preclearance if it has one or more voting-rights violations in the previous 15 years and a persistent, extremely low minority voter turnout.

Senate Republicans, including Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, object. A Washington Post blog points out that not one of them opposed the Voting Rights Act with its faulty formula in 2006, but none have stepped forward to help champion a revision today.

Nor have there been alternative suggestions for stopping discrimination in voting, except through lawsuits that are only resolved when a given election has long been history.

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