A Step Toward Restoring Voting Rights
By THE EDITORIAL BOARDJAN. 18, 2014
Only seven months after the Supreme Court shattered the Voting Rights Act, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has come up with a bill that would go a long way toward putting it back together. If they can persuade Republicans in Congress to set aside partisanship and allow it to pass, they would begin to restore justice to a deeply damaged electoral process. It would be an ideal way to observe the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday this week.
The bill is far from perfect. In particular, it does not give enough weight to the discriminatory effect of voter ID laws. But it would make it more difficult for states and localities to take other actions that reduce minority voting rights. Jurisdictions would once again be put under Justice Department supervision if they committed multiple violations of the Constitution.
All states and cities would be required to make public any last-minute changes to election practices, an improvement over current law, which requires such public notice in just a few states. And the bill would make it easier to stop harmful voting changes in court before they happen.
The Supreme Court’s decision last June struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which set the formula that determined which states and localities, based on their histories of discrimination, were required to get preapproval for voting changes from the Justice Department. The court’s majority ruled that the formula was obsolete, imposing a burden on states without proof that they still discriminate. The court invited Congress to come up with a new formula.
That’s what the new bill does. Any state that has committed five or more election violations in a 15-year period, as determined by a court, would fall under federal supervision of voting changes. Cities and counties would be supervised if they committed three violations in 15 years, or if they committed a single violation and had persistently low minority turnout during that period. That supervision would allow the Justice Department to block newly imposed voter ID requirements.
Under the proposed formula, Justice Department oversight would currently apply to only four states: Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. It would not apply to states like North Carolina, which in addition to imposing harsh voter ID requirements has also made voting more difficult in other ways, like restricting early voting or same-day registration. Those practices have not been ruled as constitutional violations by a court, in part because getting such a ruling is a difficult legal process.
The bill would permit courts to require federal supervision of a jurisdiction if a voting change has a discriminatory effect on a minority group, whether or not the effect is intentional. That would be an enormously important improvement over current law. Plaintiffs now are required to show that a state or city intended to discriminate, a difficult burden even when the effect is clear, particularly when politicians create phony justifications for their actions.
But voter ID laws are exempted from this provision, and could not be cited in a lawsuit as a reason for a court to “bail in” a state or locality to federal supervision. This is an alarming flaw, particularly in light of the important decision last Friday by a Pennsylvania judge, who ruled that the state’s voter ID law violated Pennsylvania’s fundamental right to vote and had no legitimate purpose in fighting fraud.
The bill is sponsored by Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin, and Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, among others, and several members from both parties have pledged to support it. Mr. Sensenbrenner said he was trying to persuade the House majority leader, Eric Cantor, to allow a vote on the bill, and said that he had to “jump through hoops” to garner Republican support.
The deletion of voter ID laws from the list of discriminatory violations is a steep price to pay for that support. This bill is a good step forward, but those who care about extending democracy to every corner of the country should not give up hope of making it even better.