President Obama leveraged the 50th Anniversary of the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to lobby to amend the existing Voting Rights Act (VRA). Republicans are opposed to modifying the VRA despite a recent Supreme Court ruling which removed certain provisions from the 1965 law. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) does not see an amendment as necessary. “They knocked out part of the Voting Rights Act … but the federal government still has the power to prosecute and investigate anyone who violates of the [law],” he commented. On the other hand, the Democrats believe that stronger voter rights legislation is needed. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) “It is beyond comprehension that in 2015, there are officials who want to make it harder for people to vote,” he said.
The issue under consideration is a section of the 1965 Voters Rights Act which required certain states, mostly in the South, which had a history of racial discrimination to obtain federal approval before changing their voting rules. In June 2013, the Supreme Court eliminated by a 5-4 vote, Section 4 of the law, the formula stipulating which states are subject to extra requirements, on the premise that this section was outdated and unnecessary . The Court did not eliminate Section 5 of the law, which requires pre-clearance for certain states and localities. However, without a formula to determine which states would be subject to the additional hurdles, Section 5 was effectively useless. Chief Justice Roberts asked the lawmakers to draft “another formula based on current conditions.” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) has led a bipartisan group to draft such legislation in the past two Congresses. H.R. 3899 would restore Justice Department approval of changes to election laws in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. A state could also become subject to Justice Department preclearance requirements if a court has determined a state limited the right to vote based on race or language. Rep. John Carney (D-Del.) also recently called for an over haul of current voter rights legislation.
But Republicans have not been willing to consider it, as they don’t think the additional protections are necessary. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte’s (R-Va.) has repeatedly said that he has no intention of restoring Section 4 of the 1965 Voter’s Rights Act. The law was applicable to nine states which previously had a history of racial discrimination. “The court found that the instances of discrimination were very old, for the most part, and there was not a justification for holding those states to a different process and a different status than the rest of the states,” Goodlatte commented. Democrats don’t agree with the assessment and maintain that the current VRA leaves voters vulnerable to “discriminatory state laws,” including voter identification requirements. Republicans and Democrats also continue to be divided on the topic of voter identification. Democrats maintain that requiring that voters furnish identification unfairly targets poor and disenfranchised voters who may not necessarily have identification documents. Republicans say that in 2015 that is an outdated perception. Furthermore, there are many resources that assist individuals with acquiring personal identification documents, which are of course necessary for accessing healthcare and social service benefits.
Despite the renewed attention that the Voter Rights Act is receiving in connection with the 50th Selma Anniversary, it is very unlikely that new voter’s rights legislation will be implemented. It does not make sense to burden states with additional requirements when the law already provides for adequate voter rights protection. In 2015, there is very little evidence of racial or other forms of voter discrimination, and the existing law already provides for adequate protection against it. Our lawmakers need to focus their attention on creating necessary meaningful legislation to address the real problems of today’s society, not the society of 50 years ago.
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