Lawmakers shoring up voter rights laws

Martin Desmarais | 1/29/2014, 10:27 a.m.

Civil rights advocates — including the NAACP — have been scrambling since last June when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and delivered a serious blow to protections for black voters in the United States. But they got a boost earlier this month when legislation was introduced in Congress to restore some of the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

The bill, known as The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, is the first bipartisan effort in Congress to respond to the “Shelby County v. Holder” Supreme Court decision in June that freed nine states as well as several counties and other political jurisdictions from Voting Rights Act restrictions that required changes in voting laws to be subjected to federal preclearance.

The nine states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia) had been restricted due to prior voting violations and evidence of discrimination.

The Voting Rights Amendment, introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., aims to restore protections against discriminatory voting measures and federal preclearance.

The bill updates the coverage formula by making all states and jurisdictions eligible for coverage formula based on voting violations in the last 15 years. States and jurisdictions that have had a clean record over last 15 years would not be subject to coverage. It also calls for greater transparency in elections so voters are made aware of changes, though, it does include some provisions for states to enact reasonable photo identification laws.

“Through months of negotiation and compromise, Congressmen Sensenbrenner and Conyers and I have agreed on a bipartisan and bicameral proposal to restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were weakened by the Supreme Court’s decision last summer,” Leahy said. “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. We believe that this is a strong bipartisan bill that accomplishes this goal and that every member of Congress can support.”

The NAACP came out to recognize the efforts of Congress in introducing the Voting Rights Amendment, but called for even tougher provisions.

“The NAACP appreciates that the U.S. Congress has made a bipartisan effort to update the Voting Rights Act, however we have serious concerns about the ability of some provisions in this bill to protect voters from discrimination at the polls,” said Lorraine Miller, interim president and CEO of the NAACP. “As the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots civil rights organization we have the responsibility to ensure that any proposed legislation is in the best interest of our members, our community and our country. Participation in our democracy should be unfettered and all votes should be properly counted. From the exceptions for voter ID laws to decreased preclearance coverage to increased reliance on costly litigation, there are essential revisions and amendments to this bill that must take place to ensure all voters have fair and equitable access to the ballot box.”