Senate Hearing on Voting Rights Calls for Congressional Action after Supreme Court Decision

Voting Rights 07.25,13

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s recent Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Senate Judiciary Committee last week held a hearing on the need for developing a remedy to restore crucial voting rights protections that the ruling struck down.

In opening remarks, committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D. Vt., said: “We must work together as a body – not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans – to ensure that we protect against racial discrimination in voting.  We can only do that with a strong Voting Rights Act.”

The Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R. Iowa, noted the success of the Voting Rights Act and also acknowledged its continued importance. “We should be pleased that our country has made so many advances in race relations since the Voting Rights Act was passed,” said Grassley in his prepared statement for the hearing. “The Act contributed to the progress. No doubt, though, more progress must be made. And, a hearing such as this will help the dialogue continue.”   

Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress affirmed that discrimination still exists in voting laws and stressed the importance of a bipartisan effort to address the issue.

While racially-motivated tactics such as literacy tests and poll taxes have become obsolete, many jurisdictions continue to pass voting laws that are discriminatory and hinder minority efforts to vote. In fact, since 1982, the DOJ has rejected more than 1,000 discriminatory changes from being implemented.

In testimony before the committee, Rep. John Lewis, D. Ga., a champion of the civil rights movement known for his leadership and courage during the 1965 Selma Marches, called the area struck down  the Court’s ruling – Section 4 – and the provision weakened by the Court’s ruling – Section 5 – “the heart and soul” of the Voting Rights Act (VRA). “It is the duty and responsibility of Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act – we must do it, and we must do it now,” said Lewis.

Noting his role as House Judiciary Committee Chairman when Congress reauthorized the VRA for another 25 years in 2006, Representative James Sensenbrenner, R. Wis., testified that “[t]hough the Voting Rights Act has been enormously successful, we know our work is not yet complete. … Discrimination in the electoral process continues to exist and threatens to undermine the progress that has been made over the last 50 years.”

Along with elected officials, the committee also heard from election law experts and local officials. Luz Urbáez Weinberg, a Republican commissioner in Aventura, Florida, spoke about the role that Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA has played in ensuring fair elections in his city. “My experience serving as an elected official in South Florida has ensured that I am personally acquainted with how election policies, absent a proactive impartial check, may negatively affect ethnic and language minority communities,” said Weinberg. “Ever since I moved to Florida from Puerto Rico in 1986, I have had a front-row seat to observe the unfortunate, repeated attempts to adopt and implement policies that reflect and which continue our national history of putting racial, ethnic, and language minority voters at a disadvantage.”

Legal experts, Michael Carvin, a partner at Jones Day law firm in Washington, D.C., and Justin Levitt, associate professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, California, also provided testimony.

In addition to witness testimony, the Senate Judiciary Committee received submitted testimony from the ACLU, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Common Cause, Fair Vote – The Center for Voting and Democracy, National Congress of American Indians, Anti-Defamation League, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Background on the Voting Rights Act

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is a landmark law that outlaws discriminatory voting practices that have been responsible for the widespread disenfranchisement of racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. Congress has very strong constitutional authority through the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to protect voting rights, and the Supreme Court has consistently upheld the VRA. Bipartisan majorities in Congress have reauthorized the law multiple times since its passage in 1965, including reauthorizations signed in 1982 by President Ronald Reagan and in 2006 by President George W. Bush. The 2006 reauthorization was passed by a vote of 390-33 in the U.S. House of Representatives and by a vote of 98-0 in the U.S. Senate.

Among its provisions, Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act have been viewed as the most effective at preventing discriminatory voting laws from going into effect.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires covered jurisdictions to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court in D.C. for a determination of whether that change is discriminatory. This process is known as “preclearance.”

Section 4 of the VRA sets out the formula that is used to determine which state and local governments must comply with Section 5’s preapproval requirement.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Section 5 in the Shelby County decision, it rendered the preclearance requirement powerless by striking down Section 4, ruling that the ‘coverage formula’ was based on “decades-old data and eradicated practices.” But even in striking down Section 4, Chief Justice John Roberts was compelled to state that “voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that.”

Given the consequences of the decision, The Leadership Conference is calling on Americans across the country to join in the efforts to Restore Voting Rights by urging Congress to update the rules determining which jurisdictions must seek federal preclearance.