IT SEEMS like virtually everyone on Capitol Hill is interested in fixing the Voting Rights Act. But who will step up and make something happen?
Last year, the Supreme Court hollowed out one of the most powerful parts of the law, a formula prescribing which states and localities had to get before-the-fact federal approval of any changes they wanted to make to their voting rules. Without the formula, which had been based on historical records of discrimination, the federal government had to stop its automatic review of alterations to voting-district boundaries and other election-related guidelines. The ruling hobbled a law that for decades has offered meaningful political representation to minority Americans by preventing discriminatory tricks from limiting their access to the franchise. The decision was also an insult to Congress, which in 2006 overwhelmingly determined that the act’s provisions — all of them — remain necessary.
The only consolation is that the court did not bar lawmakers from creating a new pre-clearance coverage formula. All Congress has to do, in other words, is get its act together and fill the gap the court tore in the law. A bipartisan group of lawmakers has been trying. In the House, F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), who oversaw the 2006 reauthorization of the act, has led the effort, helping to draft a sensible compromise. The proposal, which has a score of co-sponsors, would require federal supervision of any place with five voting rights violations of various sorts over a rolling time frame of 15 years.
This formula is more modest than the one the court rejected. It would immediately subject four states to pre-clearance, down from nine earlier. The bill is also sensitive to some concerns among GOP lawmakers: Voter identification laws found to violate some part of the act, for example, would not qualify a jurisdiction for pre-clearance. That means some on the left aren’t thrilled about the plan. But they should support it, and they probably will. Covering the four states with the worst records is better than covering none. The proposal also contains enhancements to voting protections that would help those who do not live in pre-clearance states.
So why isn’t this already the law? The usual explanation is that lawmakers have been too busy focusing on other issues. House Republicans, for example, have been passing a variety of bills that will never become law and obsessing over Obama administration missteps they are desperate to elevate into major scandals. The Democratic-majority Senate, meanwhile, is waiting on the House, because the bill probably will have a tougher time in the Republican-controlled chamber.
These excuses can’t justify Congress’s failure to repair the Voting Rights Act before November’s elections. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) should hold hearings and mark up the bill before the next recess. Then Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) should find floor time for it.