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As Red States Pump Out Election Laws, Fight for Voter Protections Only Churns

Democratic lawmakers, activists and lawyers are grasping for any way forward on legislation to protect voting rights as laws that make it harder to cast ballots gain momentum.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Two days after the Senate torpedoed, for the second time, legislation aimed at stopping voter suppression, Democrats took up the effort anew in the House on the eve of a solemn anniversary for their cause.

Eight years ago Friday, the Supreme Court largely gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act with a 5-4 ruling in Shelby Co. v. Holder.

“It completely reshaped the landscape of voting rights and protecting rights to vote in this country,” Representative G.K. Butterfield who chairs an elections subgroup under the Committee on House Administration, said in a Thursday morning hearing. “Since that decision, access to the ballot has been under constant attack.”

The decision struck out two key provisions of the VRA, including Section 5, which required states and localities with a history of voting discrimination to get federal preclearance before implementing any election changes. 

“It stopped us from preventing negative things from occurring instead of waiting for negative things to occur then trying to make things better,” said Eric Holder, an Obama-era former U.S. attorney general who chairs the National Redistricting Committee. 

“If almost as if you see someone getting ready to set fire to a house, you can stop them and prevent the damage," Holder explained, "as opposed to waiting for the fire to engulf the house and then trying to repair the house once the fire is put out."

Democrats argue that minority voters pay the price when states purge their rolls of supposedly inactive voters, require voter ID, close polling places and cut backs on early voting, and otherwise enact curbs to voter registration. 

Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal clinic at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, noted the example at the hearing of how Native American voices are diluted when tribal boundaries are ignored and voting locations are inaccessible. Nonstandard addresses means that voters could be placed in the wrong precinct, creating confusion and resulting in discarded ballots.