A bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress introduced legislation Thursday to update a key provision in the landmark Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down last year.
The bill, they say, would update the Civil Rights-era law and ensure that states — particularly those with a history of discriminating against minority voters — hold fair elections.
The measure would use "current conditions" to determine if states and local governments violate elections laws and require extra federal oversight. Prior to the Supreme Court's June ruling, states could be held accountable for Jim Crow-era voting rights violations.
"This bill modernizes the Voting Rights Act and will restore those protections that were gutted by the [Supreme] Court, and will ensure that every citizen has an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy," said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who helped spearhead the bill.
In its 5-4 decision in June, the high court left in place most of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But it threw out rules that required all or parts of 16 states, mostly in the South, to seek approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before they made changes in the way they held elections.
While the high court didn’t invalidate the constitutionality of the advance approval, it rejected the formula Congress used to determine which states and jurisdictions deserved extra scrutiny, saying it failed to take into account changing circumstances in the South.
In response, the new bill says that states and cities with a clean voting rights record over the last 15 years wouldn't be subject to federal oversight.
Jurisdictions that have broken federal voting law within the last 15 years — and those that violate such laws in the future — would be placed in the pre-approval program for 10 years. The jurisdictions could opt out early if a court determines they have made significant progress in combating voter discrimination.
If the bill were law today, four states would be subjected to pre-approval: Georgia, Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who drafted the measure with Sensenbrenner and Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called the bill a "common-sense approach."
"Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied his or her constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color," Leahy said. "We believe that this is a strong bipartisan bill that accomplishes this goal and that every member of Congress can support."
Still, the measure faces a precarious future in the House, where controlling Republicans generally say the pre-approval provision has done its job stamping out Jim Crow-era voter discrimination and is no longer necessary.
Sensenbrenner said he has discussed the bill with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., but that House GOP leaders haven't decided if they will support it or not.
"The way the leadership operates is they cogitate and they think and they listen to complaints" before making up their mind, he said. "I'm here to say [supporting the bill] is the right thing to do."
Several civil rights groups applauded the lawmaker's effort.
"While not perfect, today’s bill successfully answers [Supreme Court] Chief Justice Roberts’ invitation to Congress … to modernize the Voting Rights Act," said Deborah J. Vagins, senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called the measure a good first step but added that it doesn't do enough to protect minorities and voters living in states with restrictive voter ID laws.