As June came to a close, the Supreme Court addressed affirmative action, the Defense of Marriage Act and a portion of the Voting Rights Act that requires some smaller governmental bodies to get permission from the federal government before making changes to their voting laws. There is much speculation regarding the implications of the court’s rulings regarding affirmative action and DOMA.
However, the ruling with respect to federal preclearance offers a specific and unique opportunity for Congressional action to remedy the errors of the VRA, as much of the law remains intact. For that to happen, though, there needs to be action on behalf of the Republican dominated House and Democrat-controlled Senate.
The Supreme Court ruled the formula used to determine which geographic areas are subject to preclearance is no longer valid and, in essence, outdated. This means in order for the portion of the Act that requiring federal preclearance, Section 5, to be useful, Congress will need to come up with a new formula. However, as Nathanial Persily wrote in the Yale Law Review right after the Congress decided to reenact the VRA in 2006, there is a history of Congressional disagreement over the law. Although the law was reauthorized, he foresaw some problems that could, and may now, crop up.
“Fundamental disagreements existed among the senators over the desirability, constitutionality, and the meaning of the law. Thus, even an attempt to pass a watered-down consensus report and to leave heated disagreements for expressions of ‘additional views’ was not possible,” he said. “As is clear from the final Report [regarding the reenactment], some Republican senators found the geographic reach of the law to be unfair and potentially unconstitutional, as well as unjustified given what they regarded as voting rights progress.”
Now shortly removed from the SCOTUS decision, there has not been any indication one way of the other from the House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, if a push for a new formula is in the cards. Attempts to contact his office for comment were unsuccessful.
U.S. Committee on the Judiciary member Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, a Republican, issued a statement indicating he is hopeful the House will take up the issue.
“The Voting Rights Act is vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process. Section 5 of the Act was a bipartisan effort to rectify past injustices and ensure minorities’ ability to participate in elections, but the threat of discrimination still exists,” he said. “I am disappointed by the Court’s ruling, but my colleagues and I will work in a bipartisan fashion to update Section 4 to ensure Section 5 can be properly implemented to protect the voting rights, especially for minorities. This is going to take time and will require members from both sides of the aisle to put partisan politics aside and ensure American’s most sacred right is protected.”
Also on the committee, and the Democrats ranking member, is Rep. John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan. Conyers defended Congress decision to reauthorize the VRA in 2006, and also called for Congressional action.
“The decision missed an opportunity to reinforce the important role that the federal government has in ensuring that all Americans have an equal right to access the ballot box and have their votes count. I am committed to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to ensure that the voting rights of all Americans are protected,” he said.
Conyers said he was glad to see Section 5 of the VRA upheld, but expressed disappointment that the court “ignored Congress’ unprecedented and comprehensive legislative findings in reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act in 2006 on an overwhelming and bipartisan basis.”
Last modified on Tuesday, 09 July 2013
Dan Sabbatino is an award winning journalist whose accolades include a New York Press Association award for a series of articles he wrote dealing with a small upstate town’s battle over a the implications of letting a “big-box” retailer locate within its borders. He has worked as a reporter and editor since 2007 primarily covering state and local politics for a number of Capital Region publications including The Legislative Gazette, where he currently serves as assistant editor.