Atlanta Democratic Rep. John Lewis crossed the Capitol on Wednesday to demand urgency from the U.S. Senate in restoring a key section of the Voting Rights Act.
But the hearing was light on specific legislative action to come, and disagreement remains as to whether the law’s pre-clearance section is still necessary.
Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was the first formal attempt of Congress to wade into the void created by the U.S. Supreme Court last month, when it tossed out the formula that required certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination – including Georgia – to pre-submit all voting laws to the federal government. The court said Congress could create a new formula that reflects present-day discrimination rather than 1965 conditions.
“It is the duty of Congress to restore the life and soul to the Voting Rights Act,” Lewis said. “And we must do it on our watch, at this time.”
Lewis buttressed his comments with his own history in the civil rights movement and he was treated with reverence by the senators. Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he had shown a graphic novel about Lewis’ life to all five of his grandchildren.
Senate Democrats were eager to display bipartisan support for a new pre-clearance formula. Lewis was joined by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who helped steer the 2006 Voting Rights Act reauthorization. Also testifying in support of a new pre-clearance regime was Luz Urbáez Weinberg, a Republican commissioner from Aventura, Fla., in Miami-Dade County.
But the Republican-called witness, Washington-based civil rights attorney Michael Carvin, argued that pre-clearance is no longer necessary because the Voting Rights Act’s nationwide Section 2, which allows court challenges to discriminatory laws, remains intact.
The two committee Republicans who attended the hearing – Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Ted Cruz of Texas – did not speak as definitively. Cruz, a freshman who is emerging as an arch-conservative star, hinted in his questions that he thought Section 2 protections are adequate.
Grassley bristled at past comments from Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., saying Republicans would shoot down any new voting rights bill.
“Rather than blaming Republicans for blocking a bill that does not exist, the majority should bring forth a proposal for updating the coverage formula in a constitutional way,” Grassley said. “We could cover the whole country. We could identify jurisdictions engaging in discrimination in the 21st century and where Section 2 is inadequate.
“There may be other options. I look forward to seeing what the majority ultimately proposes. I certainly understand why there is no proposal yet.”
Leahy said he would use the August recess to work the phones with other members of Congress and outside groups. He said he is hoping to roll out a bill in the fall.
Lewis hopes to use the moral suasion of his civil rights past to help make the case. He invoked the blatant voting discrimination and violence that prompted the Act in the first place. And he alluded to actions such as Texas’s effort, immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, to enforce its previously blocked voter-ID law.
“We have come a great distance, but the deliberate, systematic attempt to make it harder and more difficult for many people to participate in the democratic process still exists to this very day,” Lewis said. “Only hours after the decision was announced by the Supreme Court — before the ink was even dry — states began to put into force efforts to suppress people’s voting rights.”
He will have a particularly tough selling job in the Republican-run House, which will hold a subcommittee hearing Thursday on the issue chaired by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., one of just 33 Republicans to vote against reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act in 2006.
Carvin echoed many Georgia officials who have said pre-clearance requirements are burdensome and unnecessary now. He pointed out that no other section of civil rights law — employment discrimination, for example — includes a pre-clearance proponent.
Pre-clearance advocates say it has a deterrent effect that goes beyond the small number of blocked voting changes, and is necessary in rural areas where disenfranchised minorities don’t have access to civil rights attorneys for a Section 2 challenge.
Weinberg, who spoke of persistent challenges faced by South Florida Latinos at the ballot box, said the key to recruiting more Republicans like her to the cause is to avoid tying it to partisan goals.
“We need to keep in mind that it is an all-American issue,” Weinberg said. “And I think if we reach out to the members of my party from that perspective, in an ideal world that should be sufficient, looking at the overall picture of why are we doing this and for whom are we doing this.”