Democrats and Republicans vowed this week to work together in rewriting the Voting Rights Act after last month’s Supreme Court decision punctured the iconic civil rights law, but some lawmakers warned they will seek to protect voter ID laws as part of any eventual deal.
That demand underscored the difficulty Congress will have as lawmakers try to update the rules that required some states and localities to face extra scrutiny by the federal government before they can change voting laws, redraw districts or impose new criteria such as showing an ID before voting.
The law passed in 1965 and Congress renewed it in 2006, with Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly voting to continue the decades-old formula that decided which places had to face the extra scrutiny.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.’s majority opinion in the 5-4 ruling last month upset that balance, saying states can no longer be judged based on voting practices from 1964.
Now Congress is grappling with how to write a new formula.
“The day of the Supreme Court decision broke my heart. It made me want to cry,” Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat who led one of the civil rights marches that helped spur passage of the Voting Rights Act.
Mr. Lewis, who still has one of the pens President Lyndon Johnson used to sign the law, said the problems have not gone away.
“We have made progress; we have come a great distance,” he said. “But the deliberate, systematic attempt to make it harder and more difficult for many people to participate in the democratic process still exists to this very day.”
Both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held hearings this week and leaders in each party promised to spend the next few months talking about what sort of updates they can accept to the formula.
President Obama’s campaign arm, Organizing for America, even sent out a fundraising email asking for money to press Congress to act.
“The right to vote isn’t a partisan issue,” said the email appeal, signed by the organization’s issue campaign director, Lindsay Siler. “And yet, within days of the Supreme Court’s ruling, six states submitted voter suppression laws that could make it harder for millions of Americans to vote.”
Divisions already are appearing among members of Congress, as some lawmakers suggested that going back to rewrite the law could open up thorny new questions about voting.
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, said if Congress does rewrite the Voting Rights Act, he wants to see a move to curtail multilingual ballots and to protect laws that require voters to show identification before voting.
“I think we need to have a lot more improvement in the integrity of the individual ballot,” Mr. King said at the House hearing Thursday.
Testimony was given that the Voting Rights Act was one of the most important civil rights laws in American history and that evidence shows it’s been successful, to the point where Southern jurisdictions that used to have abysmal black voter turnout now exceed their Northern counterparts.