The Senate Committee on the Judiciary held a hearing on Wednesday to determine the future of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Entitled “From Selma to Shelby County: Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act,” the question on my mind was: “Do Republicans have any interest in, or incentive to restore Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act?”
I hoped so.
But if Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) disregard of fellow Republican and Afro-Latina Luz Urbáez Weinberg, a witness who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, is any indication, we may have to bid farewell to hope of resurrecting Section 4 of the act, and to any meaningful voting rights for communities of color, at least until the U.S. House of Representatives is led by Democrats or by Republicans like Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) who govern with a sense of justice and equality under the law.
I say this because Cruz, a tea party favorite, along with Sens. Rubio, Mike Lee and Rand Paul, demonstrated skill in keeping a budget conference from taking place, and John Boehner (R-Ohio), Speaker of the House, sat back and allowed it to happen.
If Cruz can hold up a budget conference with the House, he may have enough power to stall or crush restoration of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, too.
Enacted by the 89th U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Aug. 6, 1965, the Voting Rights Act is widely considered the most effective piece of civil-rights legislation ever enacted.
It prohibits discriminatory voting practices, which at the time of its passage included passage of a literacy test or payment of a poll tax in order to register to vote. Among other things, second generation discriminatory voting practices include restrictive voter identification laws; reduction of early voting; excessive voting wait times; placing limits on voter registration mobilization efforts by nonpartisan organizations; making it harder to restore voting rights to those who had been convicted of committing a crime; making it harder for students to register and cast a vote; gerrymandering and redistricting.
Section 4 of the act blocked discriminatory voting practices by states and localities before they occurred by determining which states and localities were “covered” by Section 5 of the act. Section 4 provided a formula used to determine which states had a history of discriminatory voting practices and required those states and localities to seek pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court before making any changes in their election procedures that could negatively impact minorities.
Section 5 of the act prohibits these “covered states” from enforcing changes to their election procedures until the changes are pre-cleared under Section 4. Although the court left Section 5 intact, the high court’s decision largely gutted it it because without Section 4, there is no way to apply Section 5.
Luz Urbáez Weinberg was one of five witnesses who testified at Wednesday’s hearing. Other witnesses included civil-rights icon and “Bloody Sunday” survivor Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Sensenbrenner, who is credited with ensuring re-authorization of the act in 2006, Michael Carvin, a lawyer and partner with the law firm Jones Day, and Justin Levitt, an associate professor of law at Loyola Law School.
Urbáez Weinberg’s testimony was riveting. A native of Puerto Rico whose first language is Spanish, she is a Republican. She arrived in the United States as a “native born citizen” in 1986. According to her biography, today she is the first and only Hispanic ever elected Commissioner of the City of Aventura, Fla. She is the “proud” mother of three, one of whom is a registered Democrat and another an Independent. She testified that in her home, there are “Latinos, Afro-Latinos, Jews and Catholics who speak English and Spanish, and sometimes Spanglish …, ” but most importantly, they “are all Americans.”
Urbáez Weinberg believes that what is left of the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County is not enough to preserve “equal electoral opportunities,” particularly for Latino voters in South and Central Florida. She stated that, “Today, this landmark legislation cannot provide the protection needed to guarantee that all Americans are accorded the most fundamental democratic rights, to vote and to serve our great nation in public office.”
As a result, she called on Congress to, “[E]nact legislation to ensure that our great nation never returns to the era of civil repression and English literacy tests at polling places.” Moreover, she testified that, “We also need a new electoral framework to meet contemporary challenges to the participation of the Latino and other communities in the form of manipulation of districts and election methods, and the imposition of undue scrutiny of voters’ qualifications.”
Her testimony was in stark contrast to the testimony of Carvin, another Republican who testified.
Full disclosure: I once worked with Carvin. We jointly (and successfully) represented former D.C. City Council member Eydie Whittington (D) before the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics in a dispute over the election results to represent the citizens of Ward 8 in the District of Columbia. Whittington won her election by one vote.
Carvin believes that “no gap” was created by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County. In his eyes, Section 5 is no longer needed because Section 2 of the act, which remains in effect, prohibits intentional voting procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. He believes that Section 2 is “muscular” and can address ballot access and at-large election issues that cannot be addressed by Section 5 of the act.
So, among the Republicans who testified, there was a split in opinion as to whether the act needs to be strengthened or simply left alone.
What was astounding was that while Cruz asked questions of Carvin whose assessment of the future of the Voting Rights Act he clearly agreed with, he asked not one question of his fellow Republican and fellow Hispanic, Luz Urbáez Weinberg.
Republicans and Hispanics are not a monolithic voting bloc. But in an era of changing demographics, with Latinos approaching majority minority status, Cruz’s failure to even recognize her with one question spoke volumes.
Could it be that it might be easier for his wing of the GOP to win elections by restricting the vote of communities of color than actually adopting party platforms that appeal to minorities?
Michelle D. Bernard, the president & CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy is the author of Moving America Toward Justice, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law 1963-2013. Follow her on Twitter@michellebernard.