Lawmakers Debate Next Chapter of Voting Rights Act

Tackling the future of a law that the conservative Supreme Court gutted, members of a House subcommittee largely stuck to partisan lines Thursday while trying to diagnose the state of the electoral process. 

This screenshot from livestream shows the Reverend William Barber II testifying remotely at a Thursday hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Two days after the Senate painted the growing crop of voting restrictions from Republican legislatures as “Jim Crow 2021,” House lawmakers dove into the fray Thursday, grilling leaders from opposite ends of the spectrum on the problem.

Videoconferencing in to the hearing of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, the Reverend William Barber II of North Carolina testified this morning that Jim Crow “dresses in a suit” in his home state of North Carolina, thanks to the 2013 Supreme Court decision Shelby County v. Holder.

The 5-4 decision blithely gutted key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that identified states with histories of racial discrimination, and required states or counties with previous issues to get federal preclearance before changing election procedures or district lines.

“Before the VRA, states and localities passed a host of voter suppression laws, secure in the knowledge that it may take many years before the Justice Department could successfully challenge them in court, if at all,” Congressman Jerry Nadler said Thursday. “As soon as one law was overturned, another one would be enacted, essentially setting up a discriminatory game of Whack-a-Mole.

“Congress cannot keep letting these challenges to the VRA go unanswered,” he added. 

Reverend Barber told the committee that, since Shelby, North Carolina saw “the worst voter suppression laws since the days of Jim Crow.”

He brought up North Carolina’s “monster” voting law, HB 589, which reduced early voting days, eliminated same-day voter registration, prevented counties from counting provisional ballots if the voter cast the ballot outside of their home precinct, and required photo ID.  The law was eventually struck down in the courts as intentionally racially discriminatory.

This screenshot from livestream shows North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson testifying at a Thursday hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

Barber is Black, but so is North Carolina’s lieutenant governor, Mark Robinson, a Republican who also testifed before the House on Thursday.

Insisting that the federal government not obstruct efforts to ensure election integrity, Robinson called it “not only insane but also insulting” to assume that Black and brown voters cannot attain state IDs.

Study after study shows otherwise: one research memo by Project Vote says 13% percent of Blacks and 10% of Hispanics lack photo identification, compared with only 5% of Whites. The American Civil Liberties Union meanwhile quotes numbers from the Brennan Center for Justice, which says that “up to 25% of African-American citizens of voting age lack government-issued photo ID, compared to only 8% of whites.”

At the state level, the differences can be dramatic. In one Wisconsin federal court ruling, a judge pointed to a 2005 study that showed 85% of white residents in Wisconsin had drivers’ licenses, compared with about half of African-American and Hispanic residents. Another study, this one quoted by Slate, showed that about 92% of white voters had driver’s licenses in Orange County, Calif., compared with only 84% of Latino voters and 81% of “other” voters.

Mike Johnson, the Republican ranking member of the committee, asked if voting laws should be federalized or left to the state’s jurisdiction. Robinson said that it should be left to the states, and anything otherwise would assume that legislators in Washington knew better than those in North Carolina. “You do not,” he said. 

The committee also heard from Julian Castro — the twin brother of sitting Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro. A onetime mayor of San Antonio, member of the Obama administration and contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Julian Castro likened the state of voting restrictions in his home state to “an all-out assault.”

“For generations, Texas has been a testing ground for devious ways to restrict access to the polls,” Castro said.

This screenshot from livestream shows Julian Castro, the twin brother of U.S. Congressman Joaquin Castro, testifying at a Thursday hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

As of 2013, Texas has cut more polling locations than any state in the country, he pointed out. The state also enacted a law allowing firearm licenses to be used as ID cards to vote, but not student IDs.  

Castro brought up how President Lyndon B. Johnson had to sue Texas the same day the Voting Rights Act was enacted to block the state’s poll tax, which also disproportionately kept Black and brown voters from the ballot box. Texas didn’t ratify the 24th Amendment, which prohibited the poll tax, until 2009. 

“Today, the legislature in my home state continues to debate a new round of voting bills that are defended by lawmakers with the same justification used to defend the poll tax,” he said.  

“Under the guise of voter integrity,” he continued, “lawmakers have introduced legislation that would slash voting hours, and the number of voting machines at polling locations, make it much more difficult to vote by mail, and even allow partisan poll watchers to film voters as they cast a ballot.” 

Congresswoman Sylvia Garcia agreed with Castro’s assessment. “Texas has a very strong, clear, consistent pattern of enacting laws that disenfranchise particularly voters of color,” she said. 

Since the state required that voters show a government-issued ID to vote, “there were 600,000 Texans who were registered to vote that did not have the requisite ID,” she said. “They were disproportionately Black and brown.” 

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