One year after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) in its Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday held a hearing on proposed legislation to restore critical protections. That legislation – the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (S. 1945) – was introduced in the Senate in January by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D. Vt.
And though a group of bipartisan lawmakers introduced companion legislation in the House, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., still hasn’t scheduled a hearing on the bill. Goodlatte has said he isn’t sure new legislation is needed.
That notion has been dispelled in a slew of recent reports documenting voting rights violations, including ones from a coalition of Latino groups and the Brennan Center for Justice. The Leadership Conference’s report, “The Persistent Challenge of Voting Discrimination,” points to 148 voting rights violations recorded across 29 states between 2000 and June 2013. And since Shelby, the report highlights 10 violations in seven states that have raised concerns about voting discrimination.
That voting discrimination still exists, as these reports show, was not contested during Wednesday’s hearing. The application of the bill, though, was at issue, leading to Sens. John Cornyn, R. Texas, and Al Franken, D. Minn., to disagree about whether or not the bill singles out certain states. The VRAA would immediately apply to four states – Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi – but acts on a rolling basis to remedy current voting discrimination as it occurs.
“If Texas happens to be one of those states [that is immediately covered], that is because Texas violated the law – not because the United States Congress is targeting Texas,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a hearing witness.
Following the hearing, members of Congress and civil rights leaders rallied outside the U.S. Capitol to call for movement on the VRAA. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California said Congress shouldn’t leave for the Fourth of July recess – nor should they be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act’s passage – without first passing the VRAA.
Rep. Judy Chu, D. Calif., chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, warned that failure to pass the VRAA would allow the United States to step back into a time of Jim Crow and Chinese exclusion, while Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D. Texas, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said that access to the voting booth is under attack despite not being a partisan issue.
All speakers at the rally made one message clear: our democracy is at stake without these protections, and moving the VRAA forward now is vitally important.
In a statement on Wednesday, Goodlatte said he would carefully consider proposals that address voting rights – a sentiment he’s expressed before. And as he stalls the VRAA, more than 120 House Democrats signed on to the bill Wednesday.