Two years after the Supreme Court gutted a key portion of the Voting Rights Act, Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation that would restore many of the lost protections. At the same time, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 would address the court’s principal objection to the provision it struck down: that the formula used to decide which states must “pre-clear” changes in their election practices with the federal government was rooted in obsolete data about political participation by racial minorities.
The Voting Rights Act, first enacted in 1965, outlawed racial discrimination in voting and, equally important, required federal approval of election procedures in states (mostly in the South) with a history of disenfranchising minorities, including through the use of literacy tests. The law transformed political participation by blacks and other minorities and dramatically diversified the ranks of elected officials. In 2006, Congress extended the law, including the coverage formula for pre-clearance, for 25 years.
Yet in 2013, a 5-4 majority of the court said that the coverage formula didn’t reflect “current needs,” essentially inviting Congress to update it. Doing so shouldn’t be controversial, yet this bill faces long odds for a reason that has nothing to do with its merits: the implacable opposition of most Republicans to measures that might put additional votes in the Democratic column.
The centerpiece of the legislation proposed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is a new formula that would subject states to pre-clearance by the Justice Department or a federal court if they had been found to have committed 15 voting rights violations over the previous 25 years (or 10 violations if one of them affected the entire state). The bill also would require federal approval before a state could adopt practices historically associated with discrimination, such as a change in voter identification requirements.
This bill is more ambitious than a version introduced last year, which, among other differences, calculated a state’s eligibility for pre-clearance based on violations within a 15-year period. But Democrats likely would be willing to accept a shorter period if Republicans were willing to endorse meaningful pre-clearance of voting changes.
Sadly, the Republicans who control both houses of Congress tend to see this issue through a purely partisan prism. Why, they wonder, should we make it easier for racial minorities to vote when they disproportionately support Democratic candidates?
Countering such cynical self-interest won’t be easy, and Republicans are likely to accuse Democrats of supporting this legislation to enhance their prospects. Supporters of voting rights reform must make vividly clear that robust protection of voting rights is a bipartisan issue.
On the 50th anniversary of the march in Selma, Ala., President Obama noted that two Republican presidents — Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — signed legislation extending the Voting Rights Act. That shames contemporary Republicans, who put narrow self-interest above the importance of enfranchising all Americans.