Legislation that would retool and restore the Voting Rights Act was introduced in Congress on June 24.
Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced the “Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015” in the Senate. Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) of the Congressional Black Caucus; Congresswoman Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and Congresswoman Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, also introduced an identical measure in the House.
The bills were introduced on the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder, which gutted essential voter protections in the VRA.
The right to vote is “precious” and “almost sacred” and the “most powerful non-violent tool” of a democracy, Lewis said in a statement.
“I think it is clear today that we have come a great distance in this country toward healing the divisions and problems among us, but we are not there yet. This legislation acknowledges that we still have much more work to do,” he said, adding, “I support this legislation and hope that this Congress will do what is right by the people of this nation and pass the voting rights legislation that restores justice, dignity, and equal access to the ballot box in America.”
Lewis is an iconic civil rights leader, who was among the activists who took part in and was beaten during the seminal march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., a campaign that led to the passage of the VRA.
During the 50-year anniversary of the march earlier this year, President Obama noted the half-century birthday of the VRA in August and the continuing challenges to voting rights in the modern era.
“Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote [and] as we speak, more of such laws are being proposed,” he said. “Meanwhile, the Voting Rights Act, the culmination of so much blood, so much sweat and tears, the product of so much sacrifice in the face of wanton violence, the Voting Rights Act stands weakened, its future subject to political rancor.”
This week, the president praised lawmakers for taking up his charge to restore the voting law.
“The Administration applauds today’s efforts by Members of both the House and Senate to take up this charge to restore the promise of the Voting Rights Act to repair the damage done to this centerpiece of our democracy and honor the sacrifices made by so many who were willing to die to protect the rights it guarantees,” the White House said in a statement.
Civil rights groups have decried Congress’ two-year lag in making the changes to the VRA suggested by the Supreme Court.
“In the past two years, Congress has done nothing to repair the damage to the VRA inflicted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby decision,” said Elisabeth MacNamara, President of the League of Women Voters of the U.S. “As a result of this inaction, there has been more voter discrimination taking place at ballot boxes across the nation and we are getting dangerously close to having our first presidential election in 50 years without the critical protections once embodied in the VRA.”
Now, many are applauding the advancement of the legislation, especially since the 2016 presidential election cycle has already begun.
The measure would create a new geographic coverage formula that covers all states and is based on current conditions; allow federal courts to bail in states for preclearance; offer greater transparency in federal elections to ensure that voters are made aware of late-breaking changes in voting procedures; and allow courts to halt a questionable election law as soon as litigation begins and not after the potentially discriminatory law has already been imposed in an election cycle.
“We welcome the introduction of this crucial legislation and look forward to working with all members of Congress to rebuild a fully effective Voting Rights Act and to ensure that all Americans are protected from voting discrimination,” Tanya Clay House, public policy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement.