OP-ED: Moving forward on voting rights
By Robert C. "Bobby" Scott
Printed in the Richmond Times Dispatch | Friday, January 31, 2014
In 1964, the Supreme Court noted in Wesberry v. Saunders, “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.” While this is certainly true, there is an unfortunate history in our country of blocking access to the ballot box for minorities. For this reason, Congress passed and President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The Voting Rights Act contains several important provisions; however, the pre-clearance provision in Section 5 is the essence of the law’s protections. Section 5 requires states and jurisdictions with a documented history of discrimination to submit changes to their election laws or procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice for approval. This process is commonly referred to as pre-clearance. Those states and areas that were initially covered by Section 5 were selected “the old-fashioned way — they earned it.” The purpose of Section 5 is not to punish states, but simply to stop a discriminatory scheme before it ever goes into effect.
Another important section of the law is Section 2, which prohibits voting practices or procedures that have the intent or effect of discriminating based on race, color or language. Section 2 empowers the federal government or private citizens to bring an action in a court of law to stop a discriminatory practice. Under a Section 2 claim, a court would be authorized to extend or “bail in” Section 5 pre-clearance requirements to the violating jurisdiction.
Unfortunately, last summer, the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder struck down the coverage formula, essentially dismantling a fundamental voter protection of the Voting Rights Act. The court stated that the current coverage formula was not “grounded in current conditions.” With this decision, voters in the states and local jurisdictions with a long history of voter discrimination are no longer protected by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
Many members of Congress, including myself, were astonished by the Supreme Court’s decision because of the careful and diligent reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 led by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., that was ultimately signed into law by President George W. Bush. It became incumbent on many of these same legislators, led by Sensenbrenner, to delicately craft legislation to appropriately respond to the Supreme Court and ensure that the core protections of the Voting Rights Act are restored. I was honored to be a part of this group of legislators.
After months of careful deliberation, we were finally able to introduce the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 earlier this month. The bill’s provisions seek to increase transparency and provide additional protections for voter rights, but a major portion of the bill is the updated formula to identify those jurisdictions subject to Section 5 coverage. If enacted, the new coverage formula will require a state to be covered if that state has committed five violations within a 15-year period. A local jurisdiction will be covered if it has committed three violations within a 15-year period or commits one violation during that period and has had what the bill refers to as “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout.” This new formula would cover four states automatically if enacted: Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. While this is fewer than the nine states previously covered in the old formula, it appears to be the best we can do under the rationale articulated by the Supreme Court in the Shelby decision.
Despite our bill’s imperfections, I believe it is the most aggressive legislation possible after the Shelby decision. With this bill, Congress will ensure that the core protections of the Voting Rights Act will be restored. It is my hope that Congress will pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act quickly, so that the protections will be available for the 2014 elections.
Robert C. “Bobby” Scott is serving his 11th term representing Virginia’s 3rd District in the U.S. House of Representatives. To contact him, please visit Facebook.com/congressmanbobbyscott, Twitter.com/repbobbyscott or www.bobbyscott.house.gov.
As originally printed in the Richmond Times Dispatch: http://www.timesdispatch.com/opinion/their-opinion/columnists-blogs/guest-columnists/robert-c-bobby-scott-moving-forward-on-voting-rights/article_e1907767-d6f1-5f73-8542-326d7e0e6e8d.html