THE SUPREME Court’s decision last June to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act — which required jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression to seek advance permission from the Department of Justice for any proposed changes in their election procedures — was a blow to fair elections across the country. The results were predictable: States such as Texas and North Carolina, free from so-called preclearance for the first time since the 1960s, were quick to implement laws that are likely to reduce black and Hispanic participation in elections. But a new, bipartisan amendment to the Voting Rights Act proposed on Jan. 16 will plug at least some of the holes left by the Supreme Court decision. Congress should embrace it, and quickly.
The amendment, written by Representative John Conyers and Senator Patrick Leahy, both Democrats, and Republican Representative Jim Sensenbrenner, would strengthen a number of provisions in the law. The most notable is a revision of the formula by which the government determines whether a state requires preclearance — the main complaint cited in the Supreme Court’s opinion. Instead of being based on historic wrongs, preclearance would be determined by violations of federal law within the last 15 years. A state with five or more violations would be subject to preclearance, as would local jurisdictions with three or more violations or one violation and a “persistent, extremely low minority turnout.” This cycle would repeat every 10 years, removing states from scrutiny when they improve their records while punishing those that have, in practice, taken steps to restrict minority voting.
But in a compromise with Republicans, voter ID laws of the type supported by the party in many jurisdictions would not count as violations unless shown to be discriminatory in federal court.
This is a major concession by Democrats. State-level GOP activists have eagerly promoted voter ID laws, which ostensibly prevent voting fraud, as a way of reshaping the electorate to their side’s advantage. But preserving the Justice Department’s preclearance power has been a vital tool in protecting individual voting rights for almost 50 years, and sacrificing its return in a show of distaste over voter ID laws is shortsighted. While these laws are a popular tactic now, voters need a system of protections robust enough to counter new types of threats that might emerge in the future.
While an ardent conservative, Sensenbrenner is the chair of the House Judiciary Committee and was instrumental in reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act in 2006. His support for this amendment will draw more Republicans to its side. Democrats should accept the offer of bipartisan support. It is worth swallowing an uncomfortable protection for voter ID laws if that means returning the teeth to the Voting Rights Act.