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Inside the New Voting Rights Bill

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We looked inside the new Voting Rights Amendment Act with some of the bill's cosponsors this week at the National Press Club. (If you thought the original VRA was noteworthy, this one has a whole other "A.")

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There's a "clear and present danger to the rights of Americans to vote" in some jurisdictions, says Minority Whip Steny Hoyer. He believes that the bill will have majority support in the House and that the key is to get it on the floor. Next month, as he's done for nearly a decade, Hoyer will be marching with Rep. John Lewis along the route Lewis took on Bloody Sunday; the coverage of Bloody Sunday spurred the passage of the Voting Rights Act in '65. Last year, Hoyer invited House Majority Leader Eric Cantor to join them, and says that he thinks Cantor had an experience there that may move him to support this legislation. This event was hosted by the American Jewish Committee and cosponsored by the National Urban League, NALEO, AAJC and ACCESS DC.

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In response to the Supreme Court's ruling that VRA's coverage formula is outdated, the VRAA trigger is an annual assessment. States could be eligible for pre-clearance if they've had at least five violations in the past 15 years, at least one of which was committed by the state itself. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee says they want to remind people that what we're regulating is fluid and that voter registration or turnout numbers are not full measures of voting rights. She and Hoyer both had high praise for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and his leadership in giving the bill bipartisan support.

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Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights executive director Barbara Arnwine (left, 25 years at the helm this year) says VRAA has some problems that need to be cleared up, including that very onerous voter ID restrictions don't trigger a bail in. We snapped her with fellow panelists: GW Law professor Spencer Overton, Coffey Burlington partner and AJC board member Andy Marks, and Open Society Foundation senior policy analyst Julie Fernandes. Julie points out that the new pre-clearance trigger is not the ballgame--focusing on it too closely misses the big picture of creating voting equality. Spencer says that high voter turnout isn't a good judge of equality as it can actually spur discrimination.

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Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights CEO Wade Henderson (here with field manager Bree Romero) agrees that voter turnout isn't an effective measure; one reason for high turnout recently was minorities' fear of voting rights infringement on the horizon. He adds that the VRAA is playing a game of beat the clock because if it's not passed by the end of July this year, there's a chance that it won't until after 2016 election.