While the impetus seems strong in the Senate for a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act section struck down last month by the Supreme Court, the task will be much more challenging in the House—and not getting it done could spell the end of the law, said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Sensenbrenner, who led the last reauthorization of the law in 2006 as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said House leadership is “concerned” about the need to rewrite Section 4 of the act, which lays out the formula used to determine which jurisdictions require federal approval of any changes to voting procedures.
“This is going to be a much more difficult thing to do than the reauthorization in 2006, but I feel we have to take the time to do it right, because if we don’t do it right, and the Court either strikes it down or Congress will not reauthorize it, that’ll be the last chance we get,” Sensenbrenner said after testifying Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“People’s blood pressure is going to go up with the arguments, perhaps including mine,” he added. “But if you get down to the bottom line, the right to vote is precious. The Voting Rights Act has been successful in enfranchising people, particularly those of color in the South that were disenfranchised before, and reauthorizing this and making it a viable law will prevent slippage back to the bad old days.”
Sensenbrenner has emerged as one of the best hopes among advocates pushing for a formula rewrite. In June, the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 as unconstitutional, with the 5-4 ruling leaving the door open for Congress to rewrite the formula. Sensenbrenner said he wants a formula rewrite to pass before the 2014 election, and the first step is to pen a draft.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil-rights icon, also testified at Wednesday’s Senate hearing, where he called Sensenbrenner “my friend, my brother.”
“The day of the Supreme Court decision broke my heart, made me want to cry, made me want to say, ‘Come, come walk in the shoes of those who tried to register, who tried to vote, but didn’t see the passage of the Voting Rights Act,’ ” Lewis said.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he hopes members of Congress use the August recess to “work the phones” on the issue. “I’m hoping the two of you, and anybody else in the House, could join us in the Senate when we come back in the fall and see what we can do,” Leahy said.
Judiciary ranking member Chuck Grassley of Iowa was one of two Republican senators at the hearing. He wondered whether Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which bans discriminatory voting laws anywhere in the country, was sufficient, and said Democrats should “bring forth a proposal to update the formula in a constitutional way.”
Grassley added that “much has changed” since 2006, and cited high voter turnout among blacks in the 2012 election. “We should be pleased that our country has made advances in race relations since the Voting Rights Act was passed,” he said. “The act contributed to the progress, and no doubt more progress should be made.”
On Thursday, a House Judiciary subcommittee will hold a hearing on the Voting Rights Act, and Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., has promised to yield time for Sensenbrenner to speak. The hearing will be chaired by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., one of 33 House members who voted against the act’s 2006 reauthorization.