Congress Makes First Attempt at Voting Rights Act Amendment

Photo: David Sachs

Last week U.S. Rep Jim Sensenbrenner   introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA); a bill to amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in an effort to revive the statutes’ powerful preclearance provisions that had allowed direct federal oversight of several states and local jurisdictions’ election-related activities. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the coverage formula in section 4 of the Act that had determined which jurisdictions would be obliged to seek preclearance or approval of all voting procedure changes.

With the Supreme Court leaving the preclearance regime hobbled, thousands of election and voting related changes can now made without the prior approval of Justice Dept. lawyers, a process that been in place for several decades. Since the court’s decision, congress and civil rights groups have struggled to enact legislation that would return to the preclearance status quo. The Sensenbrenner Voting Rights Act Amendment is the first documented attempt by congress at doing so since the courts’ pivotal ruling. Here are the highlights of the bill:

Coverage Formula

The heart of the bill is indeed the first official attempt by congress at a revised coverage formula to replace the “outdated” one that Supreme Court rejected out of hand in June of last year. According to Roll Call, It’s not immediately clear which states would trigger preclearance under the new law, but at least one election expert hypothesized if passed, it would cover at least four states; Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and  Texas.

The new formula triggers preclearance of an entire state if the Attorney General documents five or more “voting rights violations” within a state in the previous 15-year period. At least one of those five violations must have been committed by the state itself as opposed to its local subdivisions. Local jurisdictions trigger preclearance coverage after 3 violations during a 15-year period or if one violation is committed in conjunction with “persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout.”

What exactly is a “voting rights violation” or “persistent, extremely low turnout”? The definition of a voting right violation is fairly broad, with one notable exception. Any voting law, practice or policy that a court finds violates the 14th or 15th amendment or section 2 of the VRA, or any denial of preclearance by a court or the Justice Dept. are counted as voting rights violations. However, voter identification procedures are singled out in the bill as exempt from counting as a violation even if a court finds them discriminatory against minorities.

The “persistently low turnout” definition compares the minority turnout of a political subdivision to several factors such as comparable turnout rates for minorities and non-minorities statewide in federal elections. Local turnout rates are also compared to nationwide turnout rates in previous presidential elections. If a subdivision’s minority turnout is below any of these comparative measures in a majority of federal or presidential elections over the previous 15 years, it could trigger preclearance.

The Attorney General’s Role

The bill gives the U.S. Attorney General the sole responsibility at the beginning of each calendar year to  determine what jurisdictions make “the list” of ongoing voting rights violations. Turnout calculations are made using citizen voting age population as the denominator.

Transparency Provisions

Perhaps the most sweeping change is the bill’s transparency requirements which generally  apply to states and political subdivisions nationwide. Election and voting changes, must be posted within 48 hours both publically within the state or local jurisdiction and on the Internet. Much of the posting requirements center around racial statistics, for instance polling place changes require notice of the change in addition to the demographic makeup of the old and new polling place, including voting age population by race and the number of registered voters by race. Read the full text of the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014

Categories: Law, Redistricting, Uncategorized, VRAA

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