New Voting-Rights Bill Splits Lawmakers — Even Before It Is Unveiled

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WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 17: Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) (L) and ranking member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) listen to testimony during a House Judiciary Committee hearing, July 17, 2013 in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony from members of the intelligence community on oversight of the Obama Administration's use of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
National Journal
Billy House
Jan. 15, 2014, 3:22 p.m.

Even be­fore the latest ver­sion of the Vot­ing Rights Act is un­veiled in the House on Thursday, a split is emer­ging between sev­er­al con­gres­sion­al caucuses over what some claim is an ab­sence of for­ward-look­ing pro­tec­tions for com­munit­ies of Lati­nos, Asi­ans, Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans, and oth­ers.

A private meet­ing Wed­nes­day between the bill’s Demo­crat­ic spon­sors, Minor­ity Whip Steny Hoy­er, and mem­bers of the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus, the Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus, and oth­er groups left those dif­fer­ences un­re­solved.

“We’re walk­ing a nar­row line,” said Rep. John Con­yers, one of the bill’s spon­sors and the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee. “If we over­reach, we will lose Re­pub­lic­an votes. But if we don’t go far enough, we will lose votes on our own side.”

Aides to the lead GOP spon­sor, former Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man James Sensen­bren­ner, did not re­spond Wed­nes­day to re­quests to talk about the bill, the in­tro­duc­tion of which is time to be­fore the Mar­tin Luth­er King Jr. Day hol­i­day week­end.

The meas­ure is a le­gis­lat­ive re­sponse to the Su­preme Court’s de­cision in June to strike down a dec­ades-old for­mula used to identi­fy loc­a­tions na­tion­wide that re­quire fed­er­al ap­prov­al be­fore chan­ging elec­tions pro­ced­ures. The Court said Con­gress was free to en­act a new for­mula.

As of Wed­nes­day, the com­plete con­tents of the new, bi­par­tis­an House bill was still be­ing held closely by its spon­sors, though out­lines were re­leased to some law­makers and out­side groups.

A memo labeled as a “con­fid­en­tial draft” and dated Jan. 14 con­tained a de­scrip­tion of the pro­vi­sions in the bill. In­cluded was a sec­tion re­gard­ing vi­ol­a­tions that trig­ger the au­thor­ity of a court to in­ter­vene, which in­cludes a new stand­ard for cases in­volving photo iden­ti­fic­a­tion re­quire­ments. An­oth­er sec­tion shows how over­sight can be triggered if cer­tain num­bers of vot­ing-rights vi­ol­a­tions oc­cur with­in a 15-year peri­od in a state or loc­al jur­is­dic­tion or if it has “per­sist­ent and ex­tremely low minor­ity voter turnout.” There are dis­clos­ure re­quire­ments for vot­ing law changes and a pro­vi­sion that the at­tor­ney gen­er­al has the con­tinu­ing au­thor­ity to re­quest fed­er­al ob­serv­ers in jur­is­dic­tions sub­ject to over­sight.

A spokes­wo­man for Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Chair­man Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., would not com­ment Wed­nes­day on wheth­er com­pan­ion le­gis­la­tion is be­ing in­tro­duced in the Sen­ate.

The emer­ging dis­agree­ment between some minor­ity groups is wheth­er Demo­crats should push for ad­di­tion­al lan­guage to in­cor­por­ate what is known as a “known prac­tices” cov­er­age for­mula for fed­er­al ap­prov­al, a broad­er ap­proach than used in the past.  

En­dorsed by Latino, Asi­an-Amer­ic­an, Pa­cific Is­lander, Nat­ive Hawaii­an, and Nat­ive Amer­ic­an or­gan­iz­a­tions, the mech­an­ism would tie fed­er­al over­sight not just to cer­tain geo­graph­ic­al areas and past prac­tices, but to par­tic­u­lar prac­tices wherever they oc­cur. That would cov­er more of the na­tion’s most rap­idly grow­ing ra­cial-, eth­nic-, and lan­guage-minor­ity com­munit­ies.

Many mem­bers of the Black Caucus are already say­ing they are in­clined to sup­port the bill, and are con­cerned that press­ing for the broad­er lan­guage could threaten the fra­gile bi­par­tis­an sup­port for the meas­ure.

But many mem­bers of the His­pan­ic Caucus and groups in­side and out­side Con­gress rep­res­ent­ing oth­er minor­ity pop­u­la­tions say they have con­cerns, and are push­ing for the in­clu­sion of the ad­di­tion­al lan­guage.

“We don’t have re­ser­va­tions about the bill. We just want to amend it,” said Rep. Ruben Hino­josa, a Texas Demo­crat and chair­man of the 26-mem­ber Con­gres­sion­al His­pan­ic Caucus. Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, an Ari­zona Demo­crat who serves as co­chair of the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus, echoed Hino­josa, say­ing the new Vot­ing Rights Act must ac­com­mod­ate “the growth in the Latino and oth­er com­munit­ies.”

Out­side groups that have weighed in sim­il­arly in­clude Asi­an Amer­ic­ans Ad­van­cing Justice, the Latino Leg­al Voice for Civil Rights in Amer­ica, the Na­tion­al As­so­ci­ation of Latino Elec­ted and Ap­poin­ted Of­fi­cials, and the Nat­ive Amer­ic­an Rights Fund.

Ar­turo Var­gas, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of NA­LEO, said his group wants to make sure that dis­crim­in­at­ory elec­tion pro­ced­ures are ad­dressed in the bill in all jur­is­dic­tions, not just those covered in the past.

But Rep. John Lewis, a Geor­gia Demo­crat and civil-rights icon, said Wed­nes­day that he be­lieves work on the bill by Sensen­bren­ner and Demo­crats has been a sin­cere ef­fort at bi­par­tis­an­ship to “re­pair the de­cision of the U.S. Su­preme Court.”

“It’s not all that we want. It’s not a per­fect bill. But it’s a good bill,” Lewis said.

Rep. Hank John­son, a fel­low Geor­gia Demo­crat, said, “Nobody’s really en­am­ored with it. But the bill  does move the ball for­ward — and that’s kind of where we are. You’re not go­ing to get everything you want. That’s just the real­ity of it.”

An­oth­er Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee Demo­crat, Rep. Sheila Jack­son Lee of Texas, said that “every­body is as­sess­ing the bill and we all have con­cerns — but the main is­sue is that we’ll have something rather than that Su­preme Court de­cision.”

“Right now, the hurdle is get­ting Re­pub­lic­an votes,” said Rep. Al­cee Hast­ings, a Flor­ida Demo­crat.

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