‘Voting Rights Amendment Act’ under review
by Sarah Fay Campbell
A bill that would bring back many provisions of the Voting Rights Act has been introduced in the U.S. House and Senate by a bipartisan group of senators and representatives.
Section 5 of The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court this summer because the way the law was applied was deemed unconstitutional.
The court struck down the “coverage formula,” which was used to determine which states and other jurisdictions would be subject to the “pre-clearance” requirements in Section 5. Under Section 5, any voting changes — no matter how minor — had to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice before they could take effect
The court said the coverage formula was unconstitutional because it didn’t take into account changes since the 1960s.
When the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 2006, U.S. Representative Lynn Westmoreland, R-Ga. Third District and a resident of Coweta County, urged Congress to update the coverage formula.
“He was the only member of Congress… who repeatedly said it was unconstitutional and it needed to be fixed,” said Leslie Shedd, Westmoreland’s communications director. For his stand in 2006, “everybody basically threw him under the bus and called him a racist,” Shedd said. “What he was trying to do was what was best for the law.”
Westmoreland said he is still reviewing the new bill, which was introduced Thursday. Known as “The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014,” it is sponsored in the House by Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and in the Senate by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, and Chris Coons, D-Delaware.
The new coverage formula would require pre-clearance for states which have had five or more voting rights violations over the past few years, with at least one of those committed by the state itself, according to the Associated Press. The amendment would provide a way to allow courts to require federal oversight for states even if the Justice Department or private litigants can’t demonstrate intentional discrimination.
There is also a requirement for states to provide broad public notice of voting changes, and a statement that makes clear states can continue to pass photo ID laws that are “reasonable.” If a voter ID law is struck down, it won’t count as one of the five violations.
The amendment also makes it easier to get an injunction to stop voting law changes from going into effect.
Under the proposed coverage formula, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas would have to get pre-clearance. There is also a provision for counties and municipalities that have committed three Voting Rights Act violations in the past 15 years. One violation would suffice if it was in a area with a “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout,” according to AP.
Westmoreland said that, at first glance, he has some concerns with the proposal. "First, it places those 15 states that were previously under pre-clearance at a disadvantage. They are the only states which were subject to violations under Section 5 and are therefore more likely to have more violations under this new proposal than states that were not covered,” he said.
Additionally, he said, "It appears that this legislation requires pre-clearance of all changes that have taken place” since the Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down Section 5.
That could punish states “for enacting changes that were completely legal at the time,” Westmoreland said Friday afternoon. "I am still reviewing this legislation and will have further comment when I've had the opportunity for a full review."