House Passes Update to Landmark Voting Rights Act

WASHINGTON (CN) – Responding to a 2013 Supreme Court decision, the House of Representatives on Friday updated the law that mandates oversight of certain states with records of discriminatory voting laws.

Employees run ballots through a machine before resuming a recount at the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections office on Nov. 15, 2018, in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Democrats by and large have been critical of the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder opinion, which struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in a 5-4 vote.

The landmark 1965 law was passed in response to the long history of discriminatory voting laws meant to keep minorities, especially African Americans, from the ballot box. Before making changes to their voting procedures, states that qualified needed to receive approval from either the Justice Department or a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia,

Part of the dispute in Shelby County, Alabama, was over Section 4(b), which defined the states that had to submit to preclearance. The law required states that had a voting test in place before November 1964 and had less than 50% voter registration or turnout in that year’s election to get sign-off from Washington before making changes to their voting laws.

With a majority opinion from Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court found Section 4(b) unconstitutional because it relied on outdated criteria to determine which states had to submit to preclearance. Without Section 4(b), the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement could not operate, but the court acknowledged Congress could come up with a new formula and restore it.

The bill the House passed 228-187 on Friday afternoon seeks to do just that.

“There are forces in American today trying to take us back to another time and another place,” said Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and renowned civil rights leader, before passage of the bill Friday. “But with the passage of this bill, we’re saying we’re not going back, we’re going forward.”

The bill requires a state, along with all of its political subdivisions, to submit to preclearance for a 10-year period if there were 15 or more voting rights violations in the state over the previous 25 years or if 10 or more violations took place over the same time period, one of which was committed by the state itself.

The legislation lists specific events that count as voting rights violations that could trigger preclearance, including a court ruling that a state procedure or law discriminated against voters. The bill also counts denial of preclearance from the Justice Department or the three-judge panel as a voting rights violation.

In addition, the bill lists a series of voting procedures that states would automatically need approval to enact, regardless of if they meet the other conditions for preclearance. These include some types of voter-identification laws, redistricting plans that meet certain criteria, and closing or moving polling places in areas with large minority populations or a high proportion of people who do not speak English.

In order to enact such changes to their voting laws, states could file a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., asking for a ruling that the change did not have the purpose or effect of keeping minority groups from voting.

Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has introduced a companion bill in the Senate. The legislation is unlikely to receive a vote in the Republican-controlled chamber, however, despite his insistence Friday that the bill would pass if taken up.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, echoing criticisms from congressional Republicans calling it a federal overreach. In a statement of administration policy earlier this week, the White House also cast doubt on whether the law would withstand judicial scrutiny.

“H.R. 4 would overreach by giving the federal government too much authority over an even greater number of voting practices and decisions made by states and local governments without justifying the current needs for such policies,” the White House said in a statement threatening the veto.

In urging a vote against the bill, Representative Doug Collins, R-Ga., called the legislation a “good-hearted attempt” but said it will not accomplish the aspirations it sets out. 

“We do not in this body vote on ideas, we do not vote on thoughts, we vote on words on paper,” Collins said on the House floor. “And the words on paper here do not fulfill what is being said about this bill.”

Collins, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, allowed there could be legislation on the subject that would earn the support of Republicans and the White House.

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