Right now, in 2015, 50 years after Selma, there are laws across this country designed to make it harder for people to vote. As we speak, more of such laws are being proposed. 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.
How can that be? The Voting Rights Act was one of the crowning achievements of our democracy, the result of Republican and Democratic efforts. President Reagan signed its renewal when he was in office. President George W. Bush signed its renewal when he was in office. One hundred members of Congress have come here today to honor people who were willing to die for the right to protect it. If we want to honor this day, let that hundred go back to Washington and gather four hundred more, and together, pledge to make it their mission to restore that law this year. That’s how we honor those on this bridge.–President Obama Speaking at Selma on March 7, 2015
H.R.885 – Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015
Amends the Voting Rights Act of 1965 with respect to the requirement that a federal court retain jurisdiction for an appropriate period to prevent commencement of new devices to deny or abridge the right to vote. Expands the types of violations triggering the authority of a court to retain such jurisdiction to include certain violations of the Act as well as violations of any federal voting rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.
I believe the above is a positive measure.
Excludes from the list of violations triggering jurisdiction retention authority any voting qualification or prerequisite which results in a denial or abridgement of the right to vote that is based on the imposition of a requirement that an individual provide a photo identification as a condition of receiving a ballot for voting in a federal, state, or local election.
Clearly the above creates a new loophole for attacks on voting rights by imposing onerous requirements for photo ID. However, the bill would have little chance with Republicans without this provision–they have made a fetish of voter ID.
Revises requirements for determining which states and political subdivisions are covered or not covered by criteria for declaratory judgments that they have not used devices to deny or abridge the right to vote.
Subjects to the requirements for making such a determination any state (and all of its political subdivisions) during a calendar if five or more voting rights violations occurred in the state during the previous 15 years, at least one of which was committed by the state itself (as opposed to a political subdivision within it).
Specifies application of such new coverage requirements to any specific political subdivision if: (1) three or more voting rights violations occurred in it during the previous 15 calendar years; or (2) one or more voting rights violations occurred in it during the previous 15 calendar years and the subdivision had persistent, extremely low minority turnout during that period.
Provides that, if a state obtains a declaratory judgment that it has not used a device to deny or abridge the right to vote, the requirements for a new declaratory judgment generally will not apply, unless the new coverage requirements of this Act apply to the state solely on the basis of voting rights violations occurring after the declaratory judgment was issued.
Rep. Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the bills sponsor, writes that Section 3 above provides for the following:
- A state can be covered if: (1) it commits 5 voting violations in the most recent 15 year period and (2) at least 1 of the violations is committed by the State itself.
- A political subdivision within a state can be covered if it commits 3 voting violations in the most recent 15 year period or commits 1 violation in this period and has had “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout.”
- A State or political subdivision will continue to be covered for 10 years starting on January 1 of the year of the most recent voting rights violations in the state or subdivision, unless the State or subdivision obtains a “bail-out” under Section 4(a).
- Under the new VRA, a voting rights violation includes (A) a final judgment from a court that the state or subdivision violated the 14th or 15th Amendment to the Constitution; (B) a final judgment of a court that a state or political subdivision violated federal voting laws; (C) a failure or denial of pre-clearance by a court under section 5 or 3(c) of the VRA; or (D) a failure or denial of pre-clearance by the Attorney General under section 5 or 3(c) of the VRA that is not overturned by a court. The Attorney General’s denial cannot, however, be based on the imposition of a photo identification requirement.
- “Persistent, extremely low minority turnout” is determined with respect to political subdivisions, comparing the minority turnout rate in the relevant subdivision to other minority and non-minority turnout rates in other subdivisions, the state, and the nation over the most recent 15 years.
Section 3 is long and complicated–I will take Rep. Sensenbrenner’s word for its impact.
Prescribes transparency requirements, including reasonable public notice, regarding any changes to: (1) voting prerequisites, standards, or procedures; (2) polling place resources; or (3) demographics and electoral districts.
Section 4 above seems good.
Modifies authority to assign observers, including authorizing the assignment of observers to enforce bilingual election requirements.
Section 5 above seems good.
Revises requirements for injunctive relief, including its scope and the persons authorized to seek relief as well as the grounds for granting it.
Section 6 above seems good.
H.R. 885 is complicated; only an expert could accurately assess its impact. H.R. 885 currently has 33 cosponsors; Rep. Reed is not among them. On the surface, H.R. 885 looks ok. An identical bill was introduced in the 113th Congress where it died in committee probably because there were insufficient GOP votes to pass it. I hope House leaders of the 114th Congress will bring H.R. 885 up for a vote.
© William Hungerford – March 2015