Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Wisconsin, is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives
On Tuesday, Americans will elect a president without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act. The last time that happened they were deciding between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater — more than a half-century ago.
In 2013, the Supreme Court declared that voter discrimination was no longer a problem and effectively struck down the only portion of the act designed to stop discrimination before it affects an election. The court let stand the provisions of the act that allow lawsuits after a discriminatory law takes effect, but unfortunately, the United States has learned the hard way that there is no satisfactory cure for discrimination after an election occurs.
At issue is a practice known as preclearance. Under the 1965 law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination had to submit changes in voting practices to the Justice Department for review. But in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down the trigger used to determine which jurisdictions would be subject to preclearance, effectively removing this safeguard.
Along with Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), I introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 to modernize the original law and to respond to the Supreme Court’s objections in Shelby County. The bill recognizes the importance of preclearance, but applies it evenly across all 50 states. Under the new law, any state or jurisdiction that demonstrates a consistent pattern of discriminatory voting practices would be subject to preclearance. When the discrimination stops, the jurisdiction would automatically be freed from the requirement. This bill offers a modern and thoughtful response to voter discrimination that ensures the minimal possible federal interference in state elections. Unfortunately, despite the legislation having more than 100 co-sponsors, Congress still has not acted on it.
If opponents take issue with the details of how preclearance would operate or the way the bill defines consistent discrimination, I will happily work with them on changes. But to not act at all suggests they believe that Congress should not allow federal oversight of local elections no matter how discriminatory and unfair those elections are. I do not believe that is an acceptable position.
The country is already suffering from Congress’s failure to modernize the Voting Rights Act. Without the full law in place, Americans face unnecessary legal battles, confusion and inefficiency at the polls, and a potentially discriminatory election process.
To date, there have been a number of significant cases brought against states regarding election laws — some with litigation still pending as Election Day approaches. The case League of Women Voters et al. v. the State of North Carolina challenged the state’s new voting laws, which implemented a state voter identification requirement and made changes to early voting and same-day voter registration practices. In early October, the Florida Democratic Party filed suit against Gov. Rick Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner seeking to extend the voter registration deadline in the wake of Hurricane Matthew. In Arizona, litigants brought suit against the Arizona secretary of state’s office, challenging polling-place closures in Maricopa County, which reduced locations by 70 percent since 2012 — opening only 60 polling stations in the 2016 primary election compared with more than 200 in 2012 and 400 in 2008.
Under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, each of these cases would have been reviewed directly by the Justice Department, eliminating the need for costly litigation and ensuring that election laws were settled before Election Day. The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 would not only restore Section 5 and preclearance practices, but also help relieve complications caused by state and local changes to voting laws. It would modernize the VRA to apply to all states equally and include transparency provisions, such as requiring officials to give public notice within 48 hours of certain voting changes that are made 180 days before a federal election. This would help reduce hours-long wait times for voters, give the public ample time to adjust to changes in polling locations and secure proper identification in states that require it.
At the core of the Voting Rights Act is the desire for equality in elections. I supported the act’s reauthorization in 1982, was instrumental in its reauthorization in 2006 and now urge my colleagues to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 during the upcoming lame-duck session.
The opportunity to reauthorize the VRA for the 2016 election has passed, but enacting the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 would be an enlightened congressional response to what has been an ugly presidential race.
The right to vote is fundamental to a successful, prosperous nation. It is imperative that the process is fair, accessible and protected from discrimination, doubt and partisan gamesmanship. If voters are worried about rigged elections, Congress must act with urgency to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015.
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