The Washington Post

Cantor loss clouds prospects for new voting rights bill

A small line forms as voters check in to vote at Memorial Baptist Church in Staunton, Va. during last year’s gubernatorial election. (Norm Shafer/For the Washington Post)

The recent primary loss by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor set off a barrage of political analysis that concluded that any large-scale overhaul of the country’s immigration laws was dead.

But the ouster of Cantor (R-Va.) also upended Democratic hopes for a bill intended to counter a Supreme Court decision last year that halted several major provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Shelby v. Holder decision stalled the requirement that nine states — each with histories of racially discriminatory actions to keep minorities from voting — must submit any changes to voting procedures to the Justice Department before they can be implemented.

The court ruled the “pre-
clearance provision” unconstitutional, which meant Congress must pass new legislation before it can be enforced again.

Efforts to craft a measure that would pass the House hinged on Cantor’s tacit support.

“Mr. Cantor, when we met with him, was interested. He was very interested,” said Lorraine Miller, interim president and chief executive of the NAACP. “I think he had a will to do it.”

Although Cantor never commented publicly on several proposed pieces of legislation that would rewrite the Section 5 requirements tossed by the Supreme Court, proponents say that in private conversations he indicated he was open to the idea.

Cantor participated in an annual trip, led by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), to several landmark civil rights sites. And on the day the court issued its decision, Cantor issued a statement saying he hoped Congress could work to ensure that the ruling had no adverse effects.

“I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected,” he said.

In the days following Cantor’s primary loss, several left-leaning publications declared that it was a major setback for the chances of a voting rights bill making it to the House floor this year.

“Eric Cantor’s loss . . . is terrible news for voting rights,” declared the opening sentence of a Mother Jones article published the day after Cantor’s loss. The sub-
headline on that piece: “Voting rights could be doomed.”

But the congressional Democrats on the front lines of the fight to pass new voting rights legislation have, if anything, been even more insistent in recent days that they will succeed in passing a bill, even if it takes more time than they’d like.

“I don’t think it changes anything,” Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, told The Washington Post last week. “Let’s be honest, he hadn’t moved it, he hadn’t had any intention of moving it. I actually think that we have a better chance than we did before.”

Some have argued that Cantor — with nothing to lose — could make championing voting rights legislation his final legislative push before he gives up his leadership post July 31.

“I can think of no better way for Cantor to end his tenure as House Majority Leader than for him to forge a consensus of the majority to preserve and protect the Voting Rights Act so all Americans will continue to have unfettered access to the ballot box — regardless of their skin color or ethnicity,” Republican strategist Ron Christie, a former adviser for President George W. Bush, wrote in an op-ed for the Daily Beast last week. “I believe the outgoing majority leader from a Southern state could move the country forward by ensuring the House fulfills its obligation as the People’s House to act responsibly to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.”

If that does not happen, Democrats say they will turn to Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), elected last week to be the next majority leader, in hopes that he may be willing to help shepherd such a bill.

“Mr. McCarthy, at my invitation, joined us in the pilgrimage in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma,” House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters last week. “And although I don’t have a quote from him as we have from Mr. Cantor, I am hopeful that he, like Mr. Cantor, will share the view that we ought to pass the voting rights response to the Shelby Supreme Court case, which undermines protection for voters against discrimination.”

McCarthy, wary of Cantor’s primary fate at the hands of tea party conservatives and eager to unite a splintered House GOP caucus, is expected to work hard to assure the most conservative members of the GOP House, a position that would argue against him getting behind a Democratic agenda item.

But House Democrats have been, at least publicly, cautiously optimistic about McCarthy.

“I like Mr. McCarthy,” said Miller, of the NAACP, adding that she hopes he will be open to helping shepherd voting rights legislation through the House. “He’s a great guy. But, either way, we will prevail.”

Wesley Lowery is a national reporter covering law enforcement and justice for the Washington Post. He previously covered Congress and national politics.


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