House Panel Urged to Revive Voting Rights Act Provisions

(Erin O. Smith/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)

WASHINGTON (CN) – Voting rights advocates, including former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, urged the House of Representatives on Tuesday to pass legislation restoring provisions of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

“What is currently happening is that as demographic changes occur and there are increasing numbers of people of color who have the right to vote, we are seeing a concomitant increase in the hurdles that are being placed in front of them to diminish their opportunity to vote,” Abrams testified.

The hearing before the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on Tuesday took place on the six-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder.

Under the Voting Rights Act, a selection of states had to submit changes to their voting laws to the Justice Department for approval. The states that had to submit to the preclearance requirement were laid out in section four of the law, which relied on information about the states’ voting practices in 1964.

In Shelby County, the high court found the formula Congress used to determine which states had to submit to preclearance was based on outdated data and therefore unconstitutional.

Democrats and voting rights activists have lamented the decision, calling it a gut punch to federal efforts to protect the voting rights of minority groups.

Few Republicans asked questions at Tuesday’s hearing, but some offered defenses of Shelby County, saying the court was correct that the section four formula was outdated.

“I was clearly new here in Congress, but it seemed very clear to me that since section four had not been changed for about 40 years, it was still penalizing states for sins, wrongs, decades before by fathers and grandfathers so to speak,” Representative Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said.

Representative Mike Johnson, R-La., also noted other parts of the Voting Rights Act survived Shelby County and have proven effective in going after discriminatory voting practices.

But Leah Aden, the director of litigation at the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, said with the preclearance requirement stripped of its teeth, voting laws that disproportionately fall on minority groups are allowed to go into effect and can only be removed through costly and time-consuming litigation.

“That was the genius behind section five, that Congress understood that elections would take place and we need to block harm before elections take place, before the cancer of racial discrimination takes root, before people get the benefit of discrimination and the victims of discrimination will have to then race into court at the cost of hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to uproot discrimination,” Aden said.

Much of Abrams’ testimony focused on her failed bid for governor in 2018, a race that has drawn allegations of vote suppression. Abrams has not conceded the election, but at the hearing Tuesday said she has “acknowledged the legal result.” She has in past public statements said Republicans “stole” the contest.

A group Abrams’ founded, Fair Fight Action, brought a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s voting procedures. A federal judge late last month allowed the suit to go forward.

On Tuesday, Abrams particularly took aim at the state’s “exact match” voter ID law, which requires information on a person’s voter registration to be identical to that on other state identification documents.

She also criticized efforts to purge voter rolls of inactive voters and the closing of polling places, all of which she said are techniques that disproportionately make it more difficult for minorities, especially black citizens, to vote.

Both Abrams and Aden endorsed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill that would update the formula that determines whether a state must submit to the VRA’s preclearance requirement. Among other factors, the law would require preclearance of specific types of voting laws.

Representative Jerry Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said Congress should act on responding to Shelby County, saying the ruling gave Congress a path to follow in order to restore the invalidated parts of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Supreme Court left us instructions on how to enact a new section four that would pass constitutional muster,” Nadler said Tuesday.

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