WASHINGTON — The Voting Rights Act, the landmark 1965 legislation that protects against racially discriminatory voting practices, had long received overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress, including for the last renewal of its temporary provisions in 2006.
But at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, early discussions on how to respond to the Supreme Court's recent ruling striking down Section 4 of the law saw Democrats and Republicans mostly divided over the provision's utility and future.
While several Democrats chided the Supreme Court for undermining the country's most effective protection against voting discrimination, even as the court acknowledged that the problem still existed, Republicans suggested that policies were outdated and that the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act remained essentially unchanged.
Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act established a formula to identify states and districts, mostly in the South, with prevalent racial discrimination in voting practices. These areas would require preclearance by the federal government to change their practices, as enforced by Section 5 of the law. The Supreme Court threw out Section 4 in June for using what it said was an outdated coverage formula, but left Section 5 intact, leaving the door open for Congress to pass a replacement provision.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran leader of the civil rights movement who worked to secure bipartisan support in the House during the law's 2006 renewal, testified Wednesday that the protections of the Voting Rights Act were "needed now more than ever before."
"Before the ink was even dry" on the Supreme Court's decision, he said, "states began to put into force efforts to suppress people's voting rights."
In the early 1960s, Lewis served for three years as the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which organized sit-ins and black voter registration in the South. During his testimony, he became emotional recounting his experience on Bloody Sunday, during which hundreds of people marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 were beaten by Alabama state troopers.
Lewis called Sections 4 and 5 the "heart and soul" of the Voting Rights Act. Seeing Section 4 struck down "made me want to cry," he said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee's ranking Republican, disputed that Section 4 was needed anymore. Though he voted to reauthorize the provision in 2006, he said that there had been only 31 complaints in the covered areas since then.
Arguing that there was little difference remaining between districts covered under Section 4 and those that were not, Grassley said that any updated legislation should address issues of discrimination facing the whole country.
"For any new bill to pass, we must respect the constitutional ruling," he said. "That requires Congress to show greater respect for the limitations of its authority."
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) suggested expanding same-day voter registration to all states, as proposed in a piece of legislation she introduced in March.
Speaking with a reporter after the hearing, she said the Supreme Court decision was "an opportunity to step back" and examine all types of issues, including voter ID laws and long lines at polling places, that prevent eligible voters from casting ballots.
She added that attempts to introduce a new version of Section 4 were likely and that the hearing was "trying to get at what kind of evidence we would need to do that."