Inside the Big Push for a Voting Rights Act Fix

With the anniversary of passage of the Civil Rights Act, advocates and lawmakers want a vote.

Holding signs with images of murdered Mississippi civil rights workers James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael 'Mickey' Schwerner, demonstrators rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court February 27, 2013 in Washington, DC. Leaders from Congress joined civil rights icons to rally as the court prepared to hear oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, a legal challenge to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. 
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
June 25, 2014, 1:15 a.m.

Con­gres­sion­al Gold Medal ce­re­mon­ies are typ­ic­ally times when in­tense le­gis­lat­ive battles be­ing waged with­in the halls of the Cap­it­ol can only be al­luded to, or men­tioned in care­fully cal­cu­lated mo­ments. These are cho­reo­graphed events where of­fi­cials laud prin­ciples that are broad enough that they can also be bi­par­tis­an.

So it was some­what strik­ing that at Tues­day’s ce­re­mony, which also com­mem­or­ated the 50th an­niversary of the Civil Rights Act’s passing, some elec­ted of­fi­cials ad­voc­ated, in clear, spe­cif­ic terms, for Con­gress to pass a bill in­ten­ded to fix a por­tion of the Vot­ing Rights Act.

It wasn’t a co­ordin­ated ef­fort by the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, and each mem­ber of Con­gress who spoke was free to say what he or she wished to say. But the re­marks from a num­ber of the Demo­crat­ic law­makers car­ried the same mes­sage, and dir­ectly con­nec­ted their agenda to move the bill to the memory of Dr. Mar­tin Luth­er King, Jr. and Cor­etta Scott King, who were be­ing honored at the ce­re­mony.

“With the Civil Rights Act and his many oth­er great works, Pres­id­ent John­son did his part to pro­tect our free­dom. With his words, act­iv­ism, and sac­ri­fice, Dr. King did the same,” CBC Chair Mar­cia Fudge said. “Today, the re­spons­ib­il­ity lies with every Amer­ic­an, es­pe­cially those in this House. We must ful­fill the prom­ise of the Civil Rights Act by en­sur­ing every Amer­ic­an’s right to vote is pro­tec­ted. Let’s pass the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014,” she con­cluded, to ap­plause.

And then there was Demo­crat­ic Sen. Carl Lev­in of Michigan, who evoked the memory of the Kings: “If the Rev­er­end and Mrs. King could speak to us now, if our pre­de­cessors who passed the Civil Rights Act could speak to us now, would they not chal­lenge us to come to­geth­er, across lines of party and geo­graphy, in a great cause? Would they not en­cour­age us, for ex­ample, to pass le­gis­la­tion restor­ing the pro­tec­tions of the Vot­ing Rights Act?”

Lev­in, who also al­luded to pris­on-sen­ten­cing re­form, con­tin­ued: “We can best cel­eb­rate the lives of those we hon­or and re­mem­ber today by chan­nel­ing their in­spir­a­tion in­to tak­ing on the tasks be­fore us, tasks surely far, far less daunt­ing than the ones they un­der­took.”

And then there was House Minor­ity Lead­er Nancy Pelosi, who said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965 “stand among the greatest le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments of our coun­try.”

“As we be­stow the Con­gres­sion­al Gold Medal for Dr. Mar­tin Luth­er King and Cor­etta Scott King, we must in­sist on the truth, and that truth is to truly cel­eb­rate the 50th an­niversary of the Civil Rights Act, we must pass the bi­par­tis­an Vot­ing Rights Act in this Con­gress,” Pelosi said.

Last sum­mer, the Su­preme Court struck down a key por­tion of the Vot­ing Rights Act, the for­mula used to de­term­ine which jur­is­dic­tions have to re­ceive fed­er­al clear­ance be­fore mak­ing changes to how they run elec­tions. Since then, a bi­par­tis­an group of law­makers in the House have come up with a bill to re­write that for­mula, led by Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Jim Sensen­bren­ner and Demo­crat­ic Rep. John Con­yers. It cur­rently has 10 Re­pub­lic­ans and 16 Demo­crats as co­spon­sors.

Some Re­pub­lic­ans have signaled that an­oth­er por­tion of the Vot­ing Rights Act that the Court didn’t rule on provides suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tions. And the pro­pos­al has also drawn some cri­ti­cism from those who be­lieve that it doesn’t go far enough to in­clude broad­er lan­guage.

Out­go­ing Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor had pub­licly ex­pressed sup­port for find­ing some sort of con­sensus, al­though he nev­er com­mit­ted to floor time on the bill. “He was will­ing to meet and ne­go­ti­ate,” Con­yers said.

Can­tor’s shock­ing primary loss earli­er this month left Demo­crats such as Fudge and the House’s No. 3 Demo­crat, James Cly­burn, see­ing no change in the polit­ic­al cal­cu­lus in get­ting the bill through the House.

But Con­yers did say, in the af­ter­math of Can­tor’s loss, that it could com­plic­ate mat­ters. “I’m not pos­it­ive about that, but this Can­tor situ­ation now has cre­ated a hands-off at­ti­tude among many of the con­ser­vat­ives, so that makes it more dif­fi­cult,” Con­yers said the week Can­tor was de­feated.

Demo­crats are now try­ing to amp up the pres­sure on House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Bob Good­latte to call up the bill, spe­cific­ally with the an­niversary of the Civil Rights Act passing.

King’s son, Mar­tin Luth­er King III, also used the day to high­light his push for Con­gress to move the VRA fix. In an ed­it­or­i­al pub­lished in The Hill, he wrote, “In a lar­ger sense, today’s ce­re­mony is not one of cel­eb­ra­tion but of mourn­ing.” He con­tin­ued: “Mourn­ing be­cause, as we ap­proach an­oth­er an­niversary, that of the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, we are mov­ing back­ward rather than for­ward in pro­tect­ing our sac­red right to vote and en­ga­ging more cit­izens in the vot­ing pro­cess.”

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