Lawmakers Consider Retooling Voting Rights Act

Congress this week has convened its first hearings about the Voting Rights Act since the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of that law last month. The meetings offer some insights into what, if anything, lawmakers will do to restore the stricken section that enables the Justice Department to review in advance changes to state voting laws.

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Lawmakers are trying to figure out how to restructure the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court struck down a portion of that law last month. It also invited Congress to come up with a new way to figure out which states needed government approval before making changes to their voting practices.

As NPR's Ailsa Chang reports, hearings this week suggest there will be a big push for lawmakers not to do anything.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Much of the debate on Capitol Hill about how to re-write the Voting Rights Act comes down to one question: How much less racist are we now, compared to the country we were in 1965, the year the act was passed, the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. led marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama to fight for the rights of black voters.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: All the world today knows that we are here, and we are standing before the forces of power in the state of Alabama saying we ain't going to let nobody turn us around.

CHANG: If you listen to many of the witnesses testifying before Congress this week, 1965 is a bygone time.

J. CHRISTIAN ADAMS: "My Fair Lady" had just won the Oscar for best picture, "My Girl" by the Temptations topped the charts, and "Bonanza" was the most-watched show on television.

CHANG: And because we're so different from that long-lost past, J. Christian Adams of the Election Law Center says we don't need Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act anymore. That section determined which jurisdictions needed approval from the Justice Department or a federal court before making voting changes, like redistricting or moving a polling place. Without Section 4's criteria, those preclearance requirements, which came under Section 5, basically evaporated. But critics of the law say that's OK - we've made such great strides in race relations, it's unfair now to place the burden of proof on certain localities to show their voting changes aren't racially motivated.

Here's Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: The government is supposed to prove its case, not the other way around. I'm sure it would be very easy if we allowed the government to simply jail individuals when they were accused of crimes and then force them to prove that they were innocent. That's basically what Section 5 did.

CHANG: No one denies that Section 5 has helped substantially increase minority voter turnout. But election law experts say that success has actually spawned other ways to dilute minority votes - like abandoning single-member district elections for at-large elections. And that's why Spencer Overton of George Washington University Law School believes a new Section 4 is absolutely vital.

SPENCER OVERTON: Perhaps the most important point is that preclearance was comprehensive. Preclearance deterred jurisdictions from adopting many unfair election rules because officials knew each and every decision would be reviewed. With litigation, political operatives know that many voters won't have the information or the money to bring a lawsuit.

CHANG: Bring a lawsuit. After the fact. That's the suggestion offered by many people who don't want to see Congress restore Section 4. Supporters of doing so, like Overton, say that's too heavy of a burden on those who could lose their ability to vote. Here he is explaining that to Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia.

OVERTON: And that drives up costs not just to the plaintiff, right, these victims of discrimination, but it also drives up costs in terms of expert fees and lawyers' fees to the jurisdictions, as well as to the Department of Justice.

REPRESENTATIVE BOBBY SCOTT: And if the victims do not have the resources to do the analysis without Section 5, what happens?

OVERTON: Discrimination persists.

CHANG: Some lawmakers seemed less concerned about that possibility and more excited about the fresh opportunity to create new requirements for voting, like Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa.

REPRESENTATIVE STEVE KING: I think if we bring up the Voting Rights Act and we have an opportunity then to open it up, I think multilingual ballots become a question. There's no logical reason that ballots should be in anything other than in English.

CHANG: What happens next? Well, leading Democrats in the Senate hope to pass some legislation to replace the stricken provision. But as Thursday's hearing in the House showed, Republicans seem less inclined to do so.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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