WASHINGTON -- In a sign of just how much the Republican Party has shifted on the Voting Rights Act since the bipartisan landmark civil rights bill was passed 50 years ago, it was surprising to see Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski sign on to a bill Thursday to restore the now-gutted legislation.
The bill that Murkowski now cosponsors, the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015, would revitalize the VRA by forcing states with a history of voting discrimination to clear any proposed changes to their election laws or procedures with the federal government or in federal court. Voting rights advocates and Democrats have demanded a fix since the Supreme Court invalidated a crucial section of the VRA in 2013 that mandated such federal scrutiny for jurisdictions across the country, including Alaska.
But such a fix has stalled in the Senate, as the chamber's Republican leadership has resisted any calls to restore the legislation. The VRA's last reauthorization, in 2006, was passed unanimously. Now, it can't get a hearing.
As voting rights expert Professor Rick Hasen of the University of California at Irvine pointed out, Murkowski's choice of legislation is intriguing, since the bill she's supporting is significantly more powerful than the legislation proposed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.), a fellow Republican. Sensenbrenner's bill has attracted a handful of other GOP cosponsors.
Murkowski's support is also surprising because she said in 2013 that she didn't sense much of a motivation to restore the VRA in Congress.
“I’m not sensing there is this drive,” she told the Alaska Public Radio Network. “Right after the Supreme Court ruled on this there was a lot of discussion, a lot of talk going around, but you didn’t hear this unanimous cry that we’ve got to go out and address legislatively.”
The bill that Murkowski has signed on to would mandate that any state with 15 or more voting rights violations in the previous 25 years pre-clear any changes to its election laws with the federal government or in federal court for a 10-year period, to prove that the changes don't "deny or abridge" the right to vote. It has 33 Democratic cosponsors.
It would also increase the number of polling sites on tribal reservations, since Alaska Natives and Native Americans are often forced to travel long distances to vote in person. The Department of Justice came out in favor of a similar proposal earlier this year.
It remains to be seen whether Murkowski's co-sponsorship will encourage other Republican senators to join her. The chairman of the Senate's Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and his House counterpart, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), have both resisted calls to have their committees consider any legislation to restore the act.
Murkowski explained why she decided to back the bill in a statement Thursday afternoon.
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought an end to the ugly Jim Crow period in American history. It is fundamentally important in our system of government that every American be given the opportunity to vote, regardless of who they are, where they live, and what their race or national origin may be," she said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), one of the original coauthors of the legislation that would restore the act, said he hoped that more Senate Republicans would follow Murkowski's lead.
Voting rights advocates praised Murkowski's move and called on both chambers of Congress to hold hearings to review recent evidence of discrimination in elections and restore the legislation. Advocates argue that bringing back the VRA's pre-clearance provision is necessary since it put the burden of proof on the states in question, rather than forcing plaintiffs to file costly, time-sensitive lawsuits that are often only resolved after an election has already taken place.
“Senator Lisa Murkowski’s decision to co-sponsor the Voting Rights Advancement Act sends a clear signal to Congress that, as history shows, both parties can work together to restore the VRA," said Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "Alaska is one of the most diverse states in the nation and Alaskans know just how tenuous voting rights are without federal protection."
The powerful nature of the VRA legislation was on display in 2008, when questions from the Justice Department compelled Alaska's elections office to withdraw a plan to close polling places in remote villages. A reauthorization of the VRA in 1975 added new protections for minorities, requiring bilingual election materials to be printed in areas where people of Spanish heritage, Native Americans, Alaska Natives or Asian-Americans constituted more than 5 percent of the local voting-age population. Some Republicans were opposed to the new language requirements at the time, and Alaska has since challenged the provision.
This story has been updated with a statement from Sen. Murkowski.