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Bipartisan group in Congress unveils Voting Rights Act amendment

William Douglas, McClatchy Washington Bureau • Jan 17, 2014 at 6:00 PM

WASHINGTON (MCT) – A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Thursday proposed amending the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the landmark civil rights measure that was hobbled after the Supreme Court determined last year that the law relied on outdated standards for racial discrimination.

The remedy authored by Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and John Conyers, D-Mich., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., seeks to rescue Section 5 of the act, which mandates that states with a history of racial discrimination get federal "pre-clearance" from the Justice Department before changing any voting practice or procedure.

In a 5-4 decision last June, the Supreme Court left the pre-clearance requirement in place but struck down the formula used to decide which states are covered, saying it relied on "decades-old data and eradicated practices." The court challenged Congress to come up with a solution.

Under the proposed Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, states with five voting-rights violations within a 15-year period could be subject to federal oversight. Localities could fall under federal scrutiny if they were found to have three or more voting rights violations within 15 years or if they had one violation in 15 years coupled with "persistent, extremely low minority turnout" within that time frame.

The measure also allows courts to put states, localities and other jurisdictions under pre-clearance requirements if they had implemented rules that have been found to disenfranchise voters. The bill doesn't consider state-required photo identification to register or vote to be a violation.

Several states with Republican governors or Republican-controlled legislatures, such as Texas and South Carolina, have passed photo-identification voter laws, saying they're needed to guard against voter fraud. Democrats and some civil rights groups say the drive is an effort to curtail minorities, the poor and the elderly from voting.

Nine states were covered in their entirety under the old pre-clearance requirements: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Selected localities in an additional seven states also were covered, including parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota.

Under the proposed formula, four states would automatically fall under pre-clearance: Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

Sponsors of the bill said they'd had to thread a needle and produce a Voting Rights Act fix that can pass a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, satisfy the Congressional Black Caucus and other Capitol Hill Democrats, and get buy-in from civil rights and civil liberties groups.

Sensenbrenner, who wrote the last Voting Rights Act reauthorization, in 2006, said lawmakers were racing against time to fix the act in time for the 2014 congressional elections and the 2016 presidential election.

"I knew the VRA must be fixed before the next election and any solution must be politically palatable while complying with the objections of the Supreme Court," Sensenbrenner said. "The modernized VRA is constitutional and bipartisan. It includes strong, nationwide anti-discrimination protections and continues to permit states to enact reasonable voter ID laws. Therefore, it prevents racial discrimination and gives states the ability to address voter fraud."

Civil rights and voting rights groups called the bill a good start.

"Although not perfect, this bill is an important first step," said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "The bill released today provides an excellent starting point for public engagement in this process."

Judith Browne Dianis, a co-director of the Advancement Project, a grass-roots organization, said her group had some serious concerns about the bill but she still called it a positive step.

"While the start of a critical debate on voting, the bill represents a floor, and not a ceiling, for ensuring that our elections are free, fair and accessible to all Americans," she said.

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