Leahy pushes voting rights bill to reluctant GOP

Published: Sep. 22, 2021 at 4:24 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (WCAX) - The U.S Senate is considering a bill that would re-establish parts of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The legislation, named after the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, made it through the House last month but faces an uphill climb in the Senate.

At a subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy pushed to shore up support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. “Restoring the Voting Rights Act has been an overwhelmingly bipartisan effort for virtually the entire history of the landmark law,” he said

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 subjected states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to federal oversight. But those provisions were struck down by the 2013 ruling in the case Shelby County vs. Holder. Now, Leahy and other Democrats want that oversight reinstated and expanded.

But not everyone believes the update is necessary. “Indeed, the Census Bureau reports that the turnout in the last year’s election was 66.8%,” said Hans von Spakowsky with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. He told lawmakers that high election turnout shows current laws aren’t restricting access to the polls. “In fact, in an election year in which we’re dealing with an unprecedented shutdown of the country due to a pandemic, we had according to the Census Bureau the highest voter turnout of the 21st century.”

The proposed legislation would mean states would need new changes approved by the Justice Department or U.S District Court for Washington D.C. It’s a rule that opponents say could put election outcomes in the hands of unelected officials. “If passed, HR4 will give tremendous power over the election procedures of every state and local election to the partisan bureaucrats in the voting section,” said Maureen Riordan with the Public Interest Legal Foundation.

“And you know, the Democrats might not be pushing that if not for the fact that they know those bureaucrats will be Democrats using that power to elect other Democrats,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

But supporters say as the U.S grows more diverse, new discriminatory election rules can be expected, and changing the law now could prevent that. “Generally speaking, this has occurred where a jurisdiction sees a group of minority voters reaching a tipping point, critical mass to be perceived as a threat to those currently in power. That’s when they invoke these voting rights violations, vote suppression mechanisms,” said Thomas Saenz with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“It’s not partisan legislation, and believe it or not, I’m a voting rights expert and I don’t care who people vote for. I just want people to vote, and so modernizing the Voting Rights Act really is important,” said Franita Tolson with the USC Gould School of Law.

Under the version of the bill passed by the House, states would have their voting practices subject to federal review if 15 or more voting rights violations happened there in the past 25 years; If 10 or more violations occurred in the last 25 years and one was committed by the state itself; and if three or more violations occurred in the last 25 years and the state administers the elections.

The bill would need 60 votes in the Senate to clear the expected filibuster -- a tall order in the evenly-divided chamber.

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