Congress Moves to Repair Some, But Not All of Supreme Court's Damage to Voting Rights Act

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Posted Jan. 29, 2014

Interview with Marge Baker, executive vice president with People for the American Way, conducted by Scott Harris


Immediately after the Supreme Court’s controversial June 25 - 5 to 4 ruling invalidating Section 4, a key element of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, states across the country that had previously been prevented from implementing restrictive voter ID laws, reduced early voting schedules and limiting voter registration, moved quickly to revive those once outlawed measures. States moving to impose new restrictive voting laws, widely seen as a mechanism to disenfranchise minority, student and elderly voters, included Texas, North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi – all dominated by the Republican party.

While President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder attempted to use the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act to challenge some of these discriminatory laws, civil rights activists demanded that Congress work toward a more permanent solution by quickly replacing Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court. Now, new legislation introduced by Democrats Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. John Conyers and Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, would amend the formula in Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. The bill would require states to undergo preclearance if five or more voting-rights violations have occurred within the last 15 years in the state, or a locality within the state. Reviews of the proposed fix are mixed with critics noting that the number of states required to undergo federal oversight would be substantially reduced and violations involving discriminatory voter ID requirements would not count against a jurisdiction.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Marge Baker, executive vice president with People for the American Way, who discusses her group's view of the recently proposed congressional legislation to strengthen the 1965 Voting Rights Act, eroded in the June 2013 Supreme Court decision.

MARGE BAKER: There are five key provisions to the bill. One is that it enhances the power of the federal courts to stop discriminatory voting changes from being implemented; so it provides some power for the courts to issue so-called injunctions; and also to order a pre-clearance remedy if a pre-clearance remedy turns out to be needed because the jurisdiction is behaving poorly. It also provides a new flexible coverage formula, updated annually, to require pre-clearance for all the changes in voting rights regulations in certain covered jurisdictions. It also creates new transparency requirements that help communities and voters know about key changes in their voting laws, and it continues and enhances the federal observer program. All of these are really critical provisions. And it’s also important that these are modern, they’re flexible, they’re a forward-looking set of protections which will restore a huge part of the power of the Voting Rights Act that the court’s position on Shelby County undid.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So overall you think this is a step forward. But what further repair do you think needs to be made — especially on these voter ID laws, which seem to be the focus of attention of a lot of these state governments controlled by Republicans who seemingly want to exclude certain people from voting?

MARGE BAKER: Right. So what the bill does with respect to most voting laws, except voter ID, the law can be invalidated if it's shown to have a discriminatory impact, a discriminatory result. In the past, what had to be shown was that the law was intended to discriminate, and that’s hard to prove. So, in many respects, for all laws but voter ID laws, it’s the discriminatory result that the courts and the Justice Department will look at.

With respect to voter ID, voter ID laws where there is a discriminatory intent, are still not permissible. But voter ID laws where you can’t prove intent but can show that they have a discriminatory result, are accepted; and we believe that as we’re going through this process, that voter ID laws really shouldn’t be treated any differently than other laws, and we’ll work to try to fix that. Although, I do want to make it clear that where there is an ability to prove that the voter ID law was intentionally discriminatory, and in fact in some cases there have been records of comments by public officials who are enacting these laws to that effect – that’s not acceptable. But we do have to deal with that sort of "carve out" of some of the voter ID laws with a discriminatory impact, but not intent.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Marge, I wonder if you’d comment on the motivation that the Republican Party which has been behind many of these changes in voting law which has the effect of disenfranchising certain groups which generally vote for the Democratic Party. It seems that with the demographic shift in the United States and the inherent advantages for the Democrats and disadvantages for Republicans that the GOP has been increasingly resorting to dirty tricks and undemocratic and unethical schemes, which unfortunately don’t seem to be called out for the blatant attacks on democracy they are by our media or even, so much, by the Justice Department and local state attorneys general.

MARGE BAKER: Right. I think it’s extremely important to keep our eyes focused on this, and it’s really interesting a lot of voter suppression efforts are part of an agenda being advanced by the American Legislative Exchange Council—ALEC, that I’m sure a lot of your listeners have heard about. Paul Weyrich, who’s one of the founders of ALEC, is notably quoted on record, that they, he doesn’t want everybody to vote — that’s not what he envisions because if everybody votes, he can’t get folks elected to advance the policies that he’s interested in advancing. I think we absolutely have to keep a focus on this, we have to make sure that we’re doing everything possible to call it out, and call people on it. And again I think some of the reforms, especially where these voter suppression efforts are aimed at discrimination, will be addressed in this reform Voting Rights Act that’s working its way through Congress. I think it is really important to press for that.

And the other thing is that our experience here has been that to a certain extent the voters’ depression itself has been a call to action, and it has made people even more determined to vote, so that in Florida you had people standing in line to vote even after the polls were closed because they wanted to make sure — they just wanted to make sure that their vote was cast.

So to a certain extent, I think it’s important to call attention to it; I think it’s important to try to enact whatever reforms we can. And it’s also important to not let voters, let themselves be stopped by efforts to suppress the vote. It’s too important, too precious a right.

For more information about People for the American Way, visit

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