Should Congress Restore Key Part of Voting Rights Act? House Hears Both Sides

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Voting rights experts presented sharply divergent opinions to a House Judiciary subcommittee on Thursday as members of Congress tried to assess the impact of the US Supreme Court's decision striking down a portion of the Voting Rights Act.

Some analysts told the Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice that the remaining provisions of the VRA were more than enough to safeguard minority voting rights. Others said the high court's action marked a considerable setback to future efforts to fight discrimination in the United States.

"We have made amazing progress in this country over the last 50 years," said Spencer Overton, a voting rights scholar and professor at George Washington University Law School. "Unfortunately, evidence shows that too many political operatives maintain power by manipulating election rules based on how voters look and speak."

Professor Overton said Congress must update the VRA and reauthorize the section struck down by the Supreme Court.

In contrast, J. Christian Adams, a voting rights specialist and former Justice Department lawyer, said the high court left untouched provisions that empower private citizens, civil rights groups, and the Justice Department to sue to block any attempt to discriminate in voting.

"Reports of the demise of the Voting Rights Act have been greatly exaggerated," he told the subcommittee.

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He added in his written comments that unless Congress could identify a level of discrimination that reached "rampant," "flagrant," or "pervasive" levels, Congress was powerless to reauthorize the so-called preclearance provision struck down in late June.

The comments came during the second hearing on the controversial high court decision in two days. On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee hosted a similar exchange of views about the meaning of and potential fallout from the Supreme Court decision.

The high court voted 5 to 4 to invalidate the portion of the VRA that designated which state and local governments would be required to seek approval from Washington before any changes to voting procedures or laws could take effect.

Congress passed the special provision in response to persistent and repeated attempts in some jurisdictions in the 1960s to deny minority voters the ability to cast meaningful ballots.

By requiring those with an egregious history of discrimination to submit any election changes, the federal government was able to prevent and deter discrimination. The measure was considered the most effective civil rights law ever enacted by Congress.

The problem was that the formula used by Congress to designate which state and local governments must submit to the special treatment had not been significantly updated since the 1960s and 1970s.

In their ruling, the majority justices said that if Congress wished to subject the states to such treatment, the coverage formula must be updated to reflect current conditions and current needs.

Now, the question before Congress is whether to attempt to reauthorize the preclearance provision by developing a new formula to identify which jurisdictions contain the most egregious discrimination.

The VRA's preclearance provision helped federal officials identify potential discriminatory provisions before they were enacted, said Robert Kengle, co-director of the Voting Rights Project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. …