WASHINGTON -- House lawmakers are giving another push to legislation that went nowhere in the last Congress: a bill to restore the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The bill, introduced Wednesday by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), responds to the Supreme Court ruling that struck down Section 4 of the law in 2013. In a 5-4 vote, the court declared it was time to update the section, which determined which states and localities with a history of minority voter suppression had to clear changes to their voting laws with the Justice Department. The justices left it up to Congress to come up with a new formula for designating which regions of the country require special scrutiny.
The Sensenbrenner-Conyers bill, known as the Voting Rights Amendment Act, updates that formula by making it apply to all states and jurisdictions with voting violations in the past 15 years, and by creating uniform transparency requirements to keep communities informed about voting changes.
The legislation actually expands the Voting Rights Act, too, by giving more power to federal courts to stop discriminatory voting changes before they are implemented. Specifically, it would lower the bar for plaintiffs seeking a preliminary injunction of a law in any federal court.
“The VRA is one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation ever passed," said Sensenbrenner. "Our legitimacy as elected officials relies on the integrity of the ballot box. I urge my colleagues to support the VRAA because it is vital to our commitment to never again allow racial prejudices in the electoral process."
Sensenbrenner and Conyers introduced the same bill in the last Congress, and it never even made it out of committee. Its prospects in this Congress aren't looking great either. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said last month that Republicans have concluded it's not "necessary" to restore the law because it's strong enough without Section 4.
A major obstacle for the bill continues to be its lack of GOP supporters. Aside from Sensenbrenner, the House bill had only 11 GOP co-sponsors in the last Congress. This time, as of Wednesday afternoon, it has only three: Reps. Charlie Dent (Pa.), Michael Fitzpatrick (Pa.) and Chris Gibson (N.Y.).
That means seven Republicans have dropped off since last year, including Reps. Steve Chabot (Ohio), Sean Duffy (Wis.), Fred Upton (Mich.), Luke Messer (Ind.), Dave Reichert (Wash.), Frank LoBiondo (N.J.) and Michael Turner (Ohio). Its other former GOP co-sponsor, Rep. Spencer Bachus (Ala.), retired.
The Huffington Post reached out to the former GOP co-sponsors to clarify whether they planned to sign on. A LoBiondo spokesman said the New Jersey lawmaker, for one, hadn't been asked to support it. An Upton spokeswoman said Friday that the congressman will co-sponsor the bill again.
House Democrats on the bill include Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.), John Lewis (Ga.), Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Bobby Scott (Va.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Steve Cohen (Tenn.), Hank Johnson (Ga.), Judy Chu (Calif.), Cedric Richmond (La.), David Cicilline (R.I.), Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), Scott Peters (Calif.), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and Karen Bass (Calif.) and Resident Commissioner Pedro Pierluisi (P.R.).
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) plans to reintroduce the Senate legislation. It didn't have any GOP co-sponsors in the last Congress and is unclear if it will this time.
"I will continue to work to find a Senate Republican to join me in introducing bipartisan legislation to restore this landmark law so that every Americans’ right to vote is protected," Leahy said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has called it "offensive" that Republicans won't act on the issue. Last month, she drew a connection between the GOP's unwillingness to address voting rights and the recent controversy over a speech House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) gave to a white supremacist group.
"If you look at what Mr. Scalise said, in the context of no voting rights bill and no immigration bill, you start to see an attitude," Pelosi said. "That really is bothersome."
UPDATE: Messer and LoBiondo later added their names to the bill.
This post has also been updated to note Upton's position on the bill.