New proposed Voting Rights Act would return Georgia to federal pre-clearance

A new bipartisan Congressional proposal would once again require Georgia and three other states to submit all voting laws to the federal government for “pre-clearance” — rewriting a Voting Rights Act formula the U.S. Supreme Court found unconstitutional last year.

The bill was introduced Thursday by a key House Republican and a Senate Democrat. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said he wants to move forward on the issue, though the Virginia Republican did not immediately endorse the new proposal.

The new plan’s backers pointed to overwhelming support for reauthorizing the full Voting Rights Act in 2006 and said the bill was designed to withstand political and constitutional challenges.

“The swift action we took on this issue demonstrates the importance of the right to vote (for) members on both sides of the aisle,” said Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and former civil rights movement leader. “It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in a democratic society.”

In June the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the formula used to put nine states and parts of six others with a history of overt discrimination in their voting laws under pre-clearance, in which all new laws must be cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice. Chief Justice John Roberts, in the 5-4 decision, put the onus on Congress to come up with a pre-clearance formula with a modern standard — rather than one based on 1965 data.

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The new proposal applies nationwide and forces states into pre-clearance if a court has found five or more Voting Rights Act violations in the previous 15 years, including at least one action by the state itself. That language would ensnare Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

But their fate would not be permanent. A clean voting rights record could free states automatically from the pre-clearance requirement.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the bill is “based on current conditions” and constitutes a “narrow fix” following the Supreme Court decision.

But many Republicans in Georgia and elsewhere celebrated the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder and said pre-clearance is no longer necessary at all.

Other Voting Rights Act protections remain untouched, and any discriminatory voting law can be challenged in court.

In addition, a court can force a jurisdiction into pre-clearance — as a federal judge did to the town of Evergreen, Ala., this week — if it shows a pattern of intentional discrimination.

“If you’ve got actual evidence that a particular town or county is engaging in discrimination, look, you can go to court, prove it to a judge, and you can get pre-clearance put in,” said Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation think tank, a leading conservative advocate on voting rights issues. “And, so, why in the world would you put in this broad new coverage formula? I just don’t get it.”

Von Spakovsky, a former chairman of the Fulton County GOP and a Justice Department official in the George W. Bush administration, said the bill unfairly punishes states for low minority turnout — which is one of the criteria for a voting rights demerit. It also holds states responsible for what cities and towns might do outside its purview.

“The state government in Atlanta, the Legislature, they don’t have any control over what the town of Valdosta does,” he said. “And yet the entire state of Georgia would be covered if four small local jurisdictions in other parts of the state do something that they were not supposed to do.”

In addition to a new coverage formula under the Voting Rights Act, the bill would make it easier for a court to put a jurisdiction under pre-clearance.

The bill does make an exception for voter identification laws, saying even if a court rules that such a law is discriminatory, it will not be held against a state for pre-clearance purposes. The ID laws in Georgia and elsewhere are popular with the public, though many Democrats argue they discriminate against poor, minority and young voters.

Lewis, who has opposed voter ID laws, declined to criticize that aspect of the bill when asked about it at a news conference Thursday, saying “this is a good compromise.”

He said he was pleased his home state would be put back under pre-clearance, particularly in light of recent voting changes in rural Georgia documented last month by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Greene County, for example, diluted black voting strength in the districts of its two black county commissioners in a recent redistricting plan that did not have to face Justice Department scrutiny.

The bill is the result of months of behind-the-scenes negotiations among members and staff from both parties and both chambers of Congress. Advocacy groups such as the NAACP, which raised a clamor after the Supreme Court decision, nudged the process along but were careful to try to avoid political confrontation in the bitterly partisan climate.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the GOP’s leader in the effort, said he had been in talks with Majority Leader Eric Cantor about the bill. A spokesman would only say Thursday that Cantor looked forward to reviewing the legislation.

Sensenbrenner attempted to illustrate Southern support for the bill by claiming at the news conference that it had the backing of Reps. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., and Spencer Bachus, R-Ala. — whose states would be spared from the bill’s pre-clearance formula. But Gowdy’s office quickly contacted the Washington news outlet Politico to deny the claim, underscoring the difficulties that lie ahead for the legislation.

“What we were facing in drafting a modernization of the VRA was both a constitutional challenge, given the court’s decision, as well as a political challenge in figuring how to get the votes to pass this legislation in a divided and very fractured and partisan Congress,” Sensenbrenner said. “I think we have threaded that needle. It was not easy to do.”

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