WASHINGTON — On the one-year anniversary of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down a core provision of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act, Democrats and civil rights groups stepped up their push for a congressional fix.
Attorney General Eric Holder, the first black to lead the Justice Department, assailed a Wisconsin voter identification law that he said impaired voting by minorities “without serving any legitimate government interest.” A federal judge struck down the law in April, but Wisconsin’s attorney general has filed an appeal.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on bipartisan legislation aimed at updating the nearly half Century-old Voting Rights Act with a new formula for determining which jurisdictions would be required to clear with the Justice Department election changes that might disproportionately impact minority voters.
And the National Commission on Voting Rights, a project organized by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, released a report suggesting that 10 of California’s 58 counties have failed to keep pace in drawing majority Latino districts despite evidence of “racially polarized voting.” The panel is taking testimony on barriers to minority access to the polls in states across the country to underscore the impact of the high court’s decision, which freed 15 states and parts of states from Justice Department pre-clearance requirements.
As McClatchy reported earlier this month, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last year invited Congress to update the law with a new formula for identifying jurisdictions requiring pre-clearance. However, 67 House Republicans who voted to extend the Voting Rights Act in 2006 have failed to co-sponsor the proposed compromise, worked out between Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.
Some Republicans, including House Judiciary Chairman Robert Goodlatte of Virginia, have been quoted as saying they don’t see a need to make any further changes. A number of Democrats in Congress feel the proposed compromise is too weak and, with its requirement of multiple court-adjudicated violations within a 15-year period, is unlikely to corral many jurisdictions into Justice Department oversight.
Holder, however, issued a video message railing that the “deeply flawed decision … effectively invalidated a cornerstone of American civil rights law.”
The decision, he said, stripped from the Justice Department “a rigorous tool to fight unjust attempts to abridge voting rights.”
The department will continue to rely on a separate provision in the law, which allows suits to challenge barriers to voting that disadvantage minority groups, Holder said. As a result, the department challenged voting laws in North Carolina and Texas after the court’s decision.
Separately, a federal judge in Milwaukee last month struck down Wisconsin’s voter ID law as unconstitutional, ruling that it unfairly burdened the poor and minorities, violating the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman ruled that the 2011 Wisconsin law required over 300,000 minority voters to overcome big obstacles to obtain a photo ID so they could vote, even though there was no hint of voter fraud, the stated justification for the toughened requirement.
Civil rights groups allege that Republicans back the voter ID laws not out of racism, but to disenfranchise an identifiable block of Democratic voters.
Holder declared that his department “will not simply stand by as the voices of many citizens are shut out of the process of self-governance.”