WASHINGTON — Congress took the first step Wednesday toward trying to repair a vital section of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, a month after the Supreme Court ruled the provision unconstitutional.
In a packed hearing room, witnesses told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Congress needs to put partisanship aside and work together to come up with a solution to fix the Section 4 formula, a linchpin of the act.
“A bipartisan Congress and Republican presidents worked to reauthorize this law four times,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, told the Senate committee. “The burden cannot be on those citizens whose rights were, or will be, violated; it is the duty of Congress to restore the life and soul to the Voting Rights Act. And we must do it on our watch, at this time.”
In a 5-4 decision last month, the court ruled that the Section 4 formula, which determined which states and jurisdictions had to get Justice Department approval before changing any of their voting procedures, was unconstitutional because it was based on “decades-old data and eradicated practices.”
The ruling essentially weakened Section 5 of the act. Under that provision, the designated states must get Justice Department approval before making any changes to voting practice and procedure. The action, called preclearance, covers anything from purchasing new voting machines to requiring photo identification and redrawing district boundaries.
Before the court’s decision, states that were required to seek preclearance were Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota had to seek preclearance as well.
Moments after the Supreme Court ruling, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and other preclearance states announced plans to begin enforcing voter laws that had been rejected by the Justice Department or federal courts.
“We feel that this (Supreme Court ruling) is a positive step for the nation,” Catherine Engelbrecht, the president of True the Vote, a conservative voting-rights group, told McClatchy on Wednesday. “For decades, voters in various states, counties and boroughs have been punished for the sins others committed in a bygone era. Washington has treated whole segments of this nation as guilty until proven innocent.”
Lewis, who marched with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., told the Judiciary Committee that the measure is still needed because while tactics such as subjecting African-Americans to poll taxes or tests may have changed since the 1960s, “there is not a change in will.”
However, Michael Carvin, a lawyer who represented George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential vote recount in Florida, said the ability under Section 2 of the act to challenge voting discrimination in court meant there was no need for preclearance.
Carvin’s view was with met with skepticism by others who testified Wednesday. Luz Urbaez Weinberg, a Republican city commissioner in Aventura, Fla., said, “Section 5 has no peer. I can’t emphasize that enough.”
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who chaired the House Judiciary Committee when he helped write the Voting Rights Act’s 2006 reauthorization, chastised the Supreme Court for citing record African-American and Hispanic voter turnout in last year’s presidential election as evidence that the Section 4 formula is outdated.
“I did not expect my career to include a third reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, but I believe it is a necessary challenge,” Sensenbrenner said in written testimony. “Voter discrimination still exists, and our progress towards equality should not be mistaken for a final victory.”
Several lawmakers have questioned whether Congress is up to the challenge of fixing Section 4, given the hyper-partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
Sensenbrenner said lawmakers didn’t have a choice, given the Supreme Court’s action.
“This is going to be a much more difficult thing to do than the reauthorization in 2006,” he said after testifying. “I feel that we have to take the time to do it right, because if we don’t do it right the court either strikes it down again or Congress will not reauthorize it. That will be the last chance we get.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com; Twitter: @williamdouglas, @kateirby