By: Emma Dumain of McClatchy
The Democrats’ campaign to regain control of the House in 2018 included a pledge to restore a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. But a vote on Friday signals their legislation is headed nowhere.
Their bill passed along party lines, 228-187, with only one Republican, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, voting “yes.” It was the first time that a rewrite or reauthorization of the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 has had a partisan vote.
The White House issued a veto threat of the Democrats’ Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore a provision requiring certain states to get federal government permission before changing local election laws.
House Republicans rebranded the bill as “The Federal Control of Elections Act.”
And even without strong opposition from the White House, there was little appetite to take up the bill in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Republicans said Democrats were to blame for crafting a bill that could not get GOP or White House support.
“If Democrats want an issue, they can continue down this path. If they want a law, they know my number. My record speaks for itself,” said Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
Sensenbrenner was the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee in 2006, the last time Congress passed a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, 390-33. The Senate passed the same bill 98-0 and Republican President George W. Bush signed it into law.
Democrats resented the characterization that they had not worked with Republicans in good faith, blaming political polarization for the lack of GOP support.
“If it were just a messaging bill, I will have wasted ten months’ worth of time,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the chairwoman of a House subcommittee on elections, who held nine hearings around the country on voter access that culminated in a 144-page report to justify an updated Voting Rights Act.
When the original Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, it required certain states with histories of voter discrimination and disenfranchisement to be “precleared” before changing voting laws. A formula was established to determine which states would be subject to this requirement.
In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court determined the formula was out of date for determining which states ought to be penalized and threw it out, challenging Congress to come up with a new one
Sensenbrenner worked with Democrats in the Republican-controlled House to come up with bipartisan compromises in the years following that court ruling, but GOP leaders never allowed a vote. Many congressional Republicans didn’t want to restore the preclearance formula, satisfied their states would no longer be punished for Jim Crow-era offenses.
On Friday, Republicans accused the Voting Rights Advancement Act of doing more than just reinstating the preclearance formula, contending the bill constituted broad federal overreach of states’ rights.
GOP lawmakers also complained the bill prohibited states from implementing voter ID laws and would require states to get permission before putting in place very specific election procedures that have a history of being used for discriminatory practices — even if the procedures weren’t intended to be discriminatory.
Democrats said the need for reforms on top of a new preclearance formula were critical, arguing that many of the 14 states and jurisdictions previously subject to preclearance have taken advantage of their freedom from federal oversight to pass new laws that suppress voter access at the polls.
Fudge said her review also found that voter disenfranchisement was now rampant in states that weren’t originally under the preclearance formula, for instance Ohio and North Dakota.
Though the Voting Rights Advancement Act is unlikely to move in the current Congress, Democrats will still seek to score political points off House passage.
Supporters held a press conference in the Capitol on Friday, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi calling it a “happy day.”
Seeking to draw on the emotions of the issue, Democrats had Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon, preside over the bill’s final passage.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also left open a possibility that Democrats could use Fudge’s report as the basis of a formal legal challenge at some future date to force the Supreme Court to reinstate the formula.
But on the floor on Friday, the debate laid bare deep political differences in starkly personal terms.
“Today, a partisan bill comes to the floor to prevent states from running their own state and local elections when we are dealing with this very issue of impeachment and discussing elections at the same time,” said Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, which also held hearings on the state of voting rights in preparation for the drafting of the Voting Rights Advancement Act.
“The Republican Party used to support the unfettered right to vote,” countered House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York. “The party of Lincoln is gone. The party of Reagan is gone. The party of McCain is gone.”