House Democrats unveiled legislation Tuesday that would restore one of the most powerful provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
The measure, called the Voting Rights Advancement Act, puts forth a new formula that would require certain jurisdictions to clear voting changes with the federal government. Since 1965, preclearance has been a crucial part of the Voting Rights Act because it prevented discriminatory changes from going into effect before an election took place. But in 2013, in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the requirement, saying the formula congress used to determine which jurisdictions should have to clear their changes was outdated. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, invited Congress to pass a new formula.
Under the new formula, 11 states would be expected to be put back under preclearance, said Jackie McGuiness, a spokeswoman for Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), the lead sponsor of the legislation in the House. Those states are: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
The new formula looks at voting rights violations over a 25-year period to determine which jurisdictions should have to seek preclearance. Any state that has at least 15 violations over that period would be required to seek preclearance. If the state as a whole ― as opposed to localities ― is found to have committed a voting rights violation, it only needs 10 violations to be put under preclearance. Within a state, a jurisdiction like a town, city or county, would be put under preclearance if it is found to have committed three or more voting rights violations over the previous 25 years.
The statute would define a voting rights violation as a settlement or final finding by a federal court that a practice runs afoul of the 14th or 15th amendment to the constitution, the Voting Rights Act or any other measure designed to prevent voting discrimination based on race.
“It’s been pretty easy to see what state legislatures have been doing across this country without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act,” Sewell said at a press conference Tuesday where she was flanked by top Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “They have been suppressing the right to vote in the name of fraud, voter fraud. In the name of not having enough resources, they’re closing down polling locations. In the name of ostensibly making it easier to vote, they are indeed making it harder to vote.”
Sewell, who represents Selma, Alabama, was also joined by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was nearly killed in 1965 during a march in that town for voting rights. The brutality of the episode helped push President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act into law.
Like other voting reforms Democrats are pushing in the House, the legislation is unlikely to pass the GOP-controlled Senate. Still, Democrats have said they are pushing these measures as a statement for what the party stands for and with the hope they could advance in the future.
Democrats notably didn’t include the new Voting Rights Act formula in a package of voting reforms being considered in a separate bill. They kept it separate so they could build a clear record of voter suppression to justify the measure and withstand legal scrutiny. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) is chairing a subcommittee charged with developing that record.