Posted by on January 24, 2014 in Blog

by: Firas Suqi
Spring Intern, 2014

Take a moment and picture the raggedy, seasoned bill from “Schoolhouse Rock”, who after getting tossed around from one chamber of Congress to the other, finally becomes ratified into law. After going through the entire painstaking process of becoming law, what the singing bill fails to tell its audience -- is that the Supreme Court can strike down certain aspects contained within the bill -- years after it’s been ratified into law.

This is precisely what happened to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) when the Supreme Court overruled Section 4 of the VRA in the Shelby v. Holder ruling last June, which had required certain states with a longstanding history of racial discrimination at the polls to receive approval or “pre-clearance” from the Justice Department over changes to voting practices and procedures. While the ruling was found unconstitutional based on 40 year-old data collected on voter discrimination, new frameworks for identifying voter discrimination have been put in place and referenced in a congressional response to the ruling.

Introduced by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) in the House and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in Senate, the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 hopes to provide a legislative remedy to Shelby v. Holder. The bill includes provisions granting:

  • Federal courts the ability to oversee and approve changes to election laws in states with a history of voter discrimination.
  • Individuals the right to sue immediately if they've been discriminated against without requiring proof of intent -- just proof that discrimination took place.
  • Greater statewide transparency in publicizing changes to voting districts and ID requirements.

The bill contains further points in response to the Supreme Court ruling, but judging by its current support, it probably won’t get too far along in the lawmaking process. What it has done successfully, however, is spark a new debate on voter rights in the U.S. that is poised to bring an overhaul to state voter laws, as a stopgap to the legislative vacuum created by Shelby v. Holder. As debate circulates on voter rights, interesting partisan arguments and reformulated bills are bound to surface in regards to the role of the federal in state voting laws.

The Department of Justice has recently filed lawsuits against both Texas and North Carolina, over their voter ID and redistricting plans. The VRA of 1965 is a landmark civil rights legislation that offered critical safeguards to ensuring equal access to the ballot box. It’s now the responsibility of lawmakers to provide voter rights in states with ongoing voter “wrongs”. Until new legislation is passed, the potential for equal access to the polls remain in limbo this election year, in what is a major blow to minority communities suffering from voter discrimination.

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