Congressional Democrats are expected to unveil new legislation this week, possibly as soon as Wednesday, that if passed would restore the requirement for federal approval for voting procedure changes in some states, a provision of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court two years ago.
The legislation, titled "The Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015," would force any state that has had 15 or more voting rights violations in the last 25 years to be subject to federal preclearance for any change in voting procedure or law.
That criterion would initially subject 13 states to preclearance: New York, California, Arkansas, Arizona, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, according to a copy of the legislation obtained by the Washington Post. Those states would be able to free themselves of the preclearence provision by going 10 consecutive years without a voting rights violation.
The bill is the latest in what has been an ongoing effort to restore the preclearence provision of the Voting Rights Act, which required many southern states to have any change to voting laws cleared by federal officials. The Supreme Court, in its 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, tossed the formula used to determine which states need preclearence, effectively ending the federal government's role as a monitor to state voting changes until a new formula is approved by Congress.
The bill, an ambitious piece of legislation, is a departure from the tactics employed last year during efforts to restore the preclearence provision. Legislation introduced last year would have subjected only four states to preclearence. In an attempt to attract bipartisan support, sponsors ended up losing the backing of some civil rights groups that did not believe that it went far enough.
“The previous bill we did in a way to try and get bipartisan support—which we did,” Leahy told The Nation's Ari Berman, who first reported that the new bill will be introduced this week. “We had the Republican Majority Leader of the House [Eric Cantor] promise us that if we kept it like that it would come up for a vote. It never did. We made compromises to get [Republican] support and they didn’t keep their word. So this time I decided to listen to the voters who had their right to vote blocked and they asked for strong legislation that fully restores the protections of the VRA."
Democrats as well as several voting rights groups spent much of last year urging Congress to respond to the Shelby v. Holder decision, and pushed for a legislative fix. While it always seemed an uphill battle, the final blow came seemed to come when Cantor (R-Va.), believed to be an ally on this legislation, was defeated in his Republican primary.
"I think Eric Cantor would have stepped forward," Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn) told the Post last summer. "I think his defeat makes it less likely that the Republican party will have that voice within their caucus."
So, rather than crafting another bill aimed at compromise with the GOP, civil rights groups and top Democrats set out to assemble a proposal that would serve as a comprehensive replacement to the formula struck down by the high court.
"What we looked at are states that have ongoing histories of discrimination," said Katherine Culliton-González, senior attorney and director of voter protection for Advancement Project, a civil rights group that was instrumental in crafting the new legislation. "More states will be covered than in the 2014 proposal, and it will include states where we have seen ongoing discrimination since the Shelby decision."
Key to any Voting Rights Act fix, however, will be gaining the support of congressional Republicans, who control both the House and the Senate.
While the compromise bill that failed last year had a Republican co-sponsor, the lawmakers expected to introduce the new legislation this week are all Democrats.
The Senate version of the bill is expected to be sponsored by Sens. Leahy (Vt.), Dick Durbin (Ill.), Chris Coons, (Del), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.). In the House, the legislation is expected to be introduced by Reps. John Lewis (Ga.), Terri Sewell (Ala.), Judy Chu (Calif.), and Linda Sanchez (Calif.).
"In this 50th anniversary year, Congress can’t let the few who dispute the reality of voting discrimination stop the majority from doing what it knows is right," said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, in a statement. "This year, Congress must work together to pass historic voting rights legislation.”