?By Jim Sensenbrenner
?Published on March 20, 2014
I bristle when people on the right or left suggest there is a conflict between my support for the Voting Rights Act and voter ID laws. The former is possibly the most important civil rights legislation ever passed, and the latter is a useful tool to prevent fraud.
The belief that no voter should be disenfranchised and every legal vote should be tallied is nonpartisan. And now, as we approach this year's elections, we must ensure the proper protections are in place.
As elected officials, our legitimacy depends on free and fair elections. Support for voting rights and voter identification are consistent goals. Only in hyper-partisan Washington can we lose sight of this.
The VRA has two primary mechanisms to combat voter discrimination. Section 2 allows private citizens or the Department of Justice to bring lawsuits to combat discrimination. It is a powerful weapon, but Section 2 lawsuits are costly, difficult to prove, and there is often no remedy for a flawed election.
In the 1950s and 60s, the federal government continuously banned discriminatory practices like poll taxes and literary tests only to see jurisdictions invent new ways to discriminate, some of which were difficult if not impossible to detect.
Section 5 of the VRA was a groundbreaking response to persistent discrimination. It established a preclearance system that required states with documented histories of discrimination to "pre-clear" changes to voting laws. DOJ had 60 days to object before a change took effect. This extraordinary remedy balanced the right of states to administer elections with the right of the public to ensure they were free of racial discrimination.
In Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court upheld both Sections 2 and 5 of the VRA, but found the Act's test to determine which states were subject to coverage was unconstitutional because it relied on historical data. Thus, the preclearance mechanism survived, but the Court all but eliminated its applicability.
In response to the Court's decision, Senator Leahy and I introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 to modernize the VRA. The amendment establishes a rolling, nationwide formula. States will only be subject to preclearance if they have committed five voting violations in the last fifteen years. And no jurisdiction can be covered more than 10 years after its most recent violation. This new formula is nationwide and restores the balance between states' and voters' rights.
Furthermore, this provision of the act will only apply when it proves needed. In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg accused the Court's majority of throwing away their umbrella in the middle of a rainstorm because they weren't getting wet. This bill ensures we only open the umbrella after feeling raindrops.
There is considerable evidence bolstering the need for the act. During the most recent reauthorization in 2006, Congress held over 20 hearingsand amassed a record of 15,000 pages documenting widespread evidence of discrimination.
More recently, in 2008, Alaska sought to eliminate precincts in several Native villages. The changes would have resulted in Native voters having to travel by air or boat to the reach the nearest precinct. DOJ requested more information, and Alaska withdrew the submission.
In 2011 in the City of Clinton, Mississippi, officials drew district lines in a way to ensure that the African American community would not have the power to elect a candidate of their choice. Since it was prior to the Court's decision, DOJ was able to use Section 5 to block the change.
Similarly, people only argue that voter fraud isn't a problem when they don't look for it. Several cases of voter fraud were reported in my home state of Wisconsin in the 2012 elections. One case involved a man who recently pleaded guilty to voting in West Milwaukee six times between 2010 and 2012, though he hasn't lived there since 2008, and deliberately voted twice in the 2012 presidential election.
In 2013, a Cincinnati poll worker told a local television station that she also voted twice in the 2012 presidential election. She was later charged with voting illegally in three elections, including voting for a relative who was in a coma, and pled no contest to four counts.
Americans are required to provide proper photo identification to fly, buy alcohol, cigarettes or tickets to R-rated movies. ID is required to drive a car. For those who can't afford a photo ID, states should and often do provide them for free. Responsible voter ID laws protect the integrity of the ballot box without discriminating against minority voters.
The amended VRA has modest voter ID carve-outs recognizing the compatibility of stopping both discrimination and fraud. It also includes new nationwide transparency provisions to help identify potentially discriminatory voting changes, as well as a provision to enhance the ability of federal courts to order a preclearance remedy when appropriate.
Proponents face an uphill battle, but the Voting Rights Amendment Act is worth the fight. The right to vote should be unassailable. This is not a partisan principle, but an American one.
View online: USA TODAY