California’s history of voting violations would face new scrutiny under Washington proposal

Despite its aggressive push to expand voter access in recent years, California’s past voting rights violations have landed it on a list of bad actors that Democrats in Washington want to subject to extra federal scrutiny.

Under a new bill to update the Voting Rights Act, 11 states — primarily in the South— are expected to meet a formula for federal oversight. In addition to California, they include Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, the bill’s sponsor said.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act was introduced in late February by Rep. Terri Sewell, an Alabama Democrat, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. It has 221 co-sponsors in the House and 45 in the Senate — all Democrats. With Democrats in control of the House, it stands a good chance of passing that chamber, but will hit GOP resistance in the Senate.

The bill seeks to replace a key section of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was struck down by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder.

Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, first passed in 1965, established a formula to identify areas of the country where racial discrimination had been prevalent. The formula was updated several times throughout the years, lastly in 1975, but part of it relied on data from the 1960s, such as whether a state had a literacy or moral clause test — Jim Crow-era laws designed to keep black people from voting — in 1964.

Under the formula created by the 1965 law, three California counties — Yuba, Monterey and Kings County — were required to receive Department of Justice approval before making election law changes or redistricting.

Merced County was also subject to what was known as “preclearance’ until 2012, when it reached an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department on voting rights protections.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that the data underpinning that formula was outdated, effectively ending the preclearance process.

“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” the court wrote.

Since taking control of the U.S. House earlier this year, Democrats have made restoring the Voting Rights Act one of their top priorities.

Democrats’ bill introduces a new formula that would apply to states that had 15 or more voting rights violations in the last 25 years or that had 10 voting rights violations, including one by the state itself, over that same time period.

It is up to the courts, among others, to determine a voting rights violation under the bill, and the U.S. attorney general is tasked with creating and updating a list of violations per state and political subdivision, like a county, each year. Violation of the 14th or 15th amendments would qualify, as would denial or limiting of the right to vote on account of race, color or language. Sewell’s office said it expected California to be among the states that would meet the criteria.

Over the last five years, California’s leaders have made a concerted effort to combat the state’s chronically low turn-out by making it easier for citizens to vote. The state has expanded vote by mail and online registration options and passed a new motor voter law to automatically register DMV customers. The latter program, however, has been plagued by a slew of technical problems.

California, however, also has a history of voting rights violations, particularly against Latinos. Local jurisdictions from Monterey County to the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District to the Hanford Joint Union High School District have faced legal challenges to their voting practices in recent decades, primarily having to do with how districts are drawn and whether that dilutes minority voting power.

In 2002, the state passed the California Voting Rights Act, expanding on the federal Voting Rights Act, as a way to protect minority voting rights. But that law, too, has been embroiled in litigation. California courts upheld the law in 2006 in a case that involved the city of Modesto. And in February, a federal district judge also rejected a challenge to the law. But critics plan to take the case to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and it could rise all the way to the Supreme Court.

Under the new proposal in Congress, cities across the state would also have to face a new layer of federal scrutiny before change their voting laws or drawing new districts.

Democrats on the House Administration Committee have been holding field hearings across the country on the bill in recent weeks.

“We are determined to fix Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, hopefully with bipartisan support,” North Carolina Democrat G.K. Butterfield said at an April 18 hearing in Halifax County, a majority African-American county in the northeast North Carolina. “This subcommittee must build a record to provide the legislative basis for the passage of strong voting rights protections.”

The subcommittee will hold additional hearings in Ohio and Florida. It has already held hearings in Texas, North Dakota and Georgia.

“Voters all across the country are concerned about making sure that their vote counts in every election, to make sure their vote is not diminished or marginalized because of election laws and procedures,” Butterfield said.

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and policy for McClatchy’s California readers. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.