Senate Revisits Voting Rights Act Following Court Ruling

Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee holds the first congressional hearing on how best to resuscitate the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the statute in June.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee has held the first congressional hearing on how to resurrect the Voting Rights Act. That's after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the law last month.

At issue in the court's ruling was the section that determined which jurisdictions had to get federal permission before making changes to voting procedures. The Supreme Court invited Congress to rewrite the provision. But as NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, hopes of anything happening soon are slim.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When the Supreme Court said it was now up to Congress to come up with a new formula to decide which states still need extra scrutiny before making voting changes, there was a collective groan from many lawmakers. The odds of a constantly squabbling Congress getting anything complicated done just seemed astronomically remote.

REPRESENTATIVE JAMES SENSENBRENNER: Sometimes the differences between the House and the Senate are the difference between here and the moon. Hopefully, not on this one.

CHANG: Republican Congressman James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin helped lead the renewal of the Voting Rights Act in both 1982 and 2006. And today's Senate hearing seemed in many ways an attempt to stir the bipartisan spirit that captured lawmakers in the 1960s when they passed the historic civil rights legislation.

Congressman John Lewis of Georgia was today's main attraction. He reminisced about leading the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: To this day, I truly believe that we're a better country, a better people because of the Voting Rights Act. We have made progress. We have come a great distance. But the deliberate, systematic attempt to make it harder and more difficult for many people to participate in the democratic process still exists to this very day.

CHANG: But the problem for Congress now is how to restructure the 1965 Voting Rights Act to conform with the Supreme Court ruling. Justices had problems with Section 4 of the law because it relied on decades-old data, and Section 4 generated the list of localities that had to seek preclearance under Section 5.

But how to do that today? Are there specific states that are still so racist they need special attention? And why not just rely on Section 2 of the act, which allows lawsuits against discriminatory voting policies after the fact? Some critics say Section 2 litigation is too slow. But lawyer Michael Carvin takes issue with that.

MICHAEL CARVIN: People don't sit around before they bring their Section 2 lawsuits and say let's have two or three elections and see how things go. They do exactly what they do in the Section 5 jurisdictions. They go to court before the new redistricting plan is entered and seek an injunction.

CHANG: Other experts say that's just not realistic. Lawsuits may sound appealing. Attorney General Eric Holder says he'll start bringing more under Section 2. But many contend Section 2 is no substitute for Sections 4 and 5. Data for litigation is hard to get. Experts are expensive. And in many rural jurisdictions, there aren't armies of lawyers ready to swoop in. Here's Justin Levitt who teaches at Loyola Law School

JUSTIN LEVITT: I can tell you that the facts on the ground look different. Ask Charleston County. Ask the voters of Charleston County, South Carolina, whether a case was brought that they were able to get relief for before the election happened, and they will tell you no.

CHANG: Today's hearing was in the democratically controlled Senate. Tomorrow's Voting Rights Act hearing will be in the House Judiciary Committee where the Republicans have control. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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