Bipartisan Group Introduces New Voting Rights Bill

A response to Supreme Court ruling striking down landmark law last year

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Jonathan Ernst / REUTERS

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) (L) is joined by Representative John Lewis (D-GA) as they announce legislation to restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, struck down in 2013 by the U.S. Supreme Court, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington January 16, 2014.

Correction appended Jan. 17 at 10:30 a.m. 

A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation Thursday to update the Voting Rights Act after a key provision was struck down by the Supreme Court last year.

The bill would offer new criteria under which states need to seek permission from the Justice Department before enacting changes to voting laws, known as preclearance. Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), along with Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), presented the new bill, which they called a direct response to the Supreme Court ruling.

“Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied his or her constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color,” Leahy said. “ We believe that this is a strong bipartisan bill that accomplishes this goal and that every member of Congress can support.”

The bill offers a new coverage formula requiring any state that has committed five voting violations over the most recent 15-year period be subjected to the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provision. In the Shelby County v. Holder decision last year, the court ruled that the standards for determining the states and jurisdictions that needed preclearance were based too heavily on their history of discrimination, rather than current discriminatory practices. Under the new bill, individual jurisdictions could be subjected to preclearance after three voting violations, or only one if the jurisdiction has had “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout.”

Justice Department rulings against voter ID laws, which have been pushed by Republicans and condemned by Democrats, would not count toward the number of violations that could lead to preclearance.

“The modernized [Voting Rights Act] is constitutional and bipartisan,” Sensenbrenner said. “It includes strong, nationwide anti-discrimination protections and continues to permit states to enact reasonable voter ID laws. Therefore it prevents racial-discrimination and gives states the ability to address voter fraud.”

The photo ID provision is sure to prove problematic for those who are concerned about the laws’ impact on minority voters, though other parts of the bill expand on existing protections. For example, the bill would make it easier to file a preliminary injunction against a law that could be considered discriminatory. The new bill would also maintain the Attorney General’s authority to place observers in jurisdictions that are subject to preclearance. And it would require states to disclose information about changes in voting procedures late in campaign cycles, polling locations, and redistricting.

Civil rights activists praised the proposed legislation, even as they said it didn’t contain enough protections for minority voters.

“This represents a significant commitment that the country has to ensuring free and fair elections,” said Myrna Perez of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “The fact that it was done in a bipartisan way is something we can be proud of.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated which rulings against state voter ID laws would count towards a state being subjected to pre clearance. Federal court rulings would count, Justice Department rulings, however, would not.