- - Sunday, August 10, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

F. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, has some ideas about how to update the landmark federal Voting Rights Act. Conservatives should embrace his effort.

First enacted in 1965, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) prohibited discriminatory voting practices that had been used to deny people — especially people of color — their constitutional right to vote.

This landmark law had wide bipartisan support and has been seen by historians as one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by the Congress.

Republicans have had a long history of protecting voting rights. In 1965, only one Senate Republican and only 20 House Republicans opposed the conference report that was signed into law by President Johnson. Some 30 Republicans voted for it in the Senate and 111 voted for it in the House. Those votes proved to be crucially important to get the bill over the top.

In 2006 no Senate Republican voted against the 25-year extension, and only 33 House Republicans voted no. Keep in mind that in 2006, Republicans were in control of the House, the Senate and the White House. It was the GOP leadership that made the extension possible.

You can make the case that without the Republican Party, voting rights would have never been protected in this country.

The heart of the VRA is Section 5, which requires certain “covered” jurisdictions — mostly, but not exclusively, in the South — to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court in Washington to determine whether that change is discriminatory before the change can go into effect. This process is known as “preclearance.”

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the coverage formula laid out in the bill was unconstitutional. While the court did not invalidate the preclearance mechanism, it effectively halted its use by invalidating the part of the law that determined which districts and jurisdictions were automatically subject to the preclearance obligation.

The Supreme Court did not find that the underlying law was unconstitutional, nor did it find the practice of preclearing certain jurisdictions to be unconstitutional. It did find that the formula used to judge which states needed the preclearing process and which states did not needed to be updated.

That’s not surprising, because things change, especially over the span of five decades.

Republicans should understand that the Supreme Court is not calling for the elimination of the VRA; it is calling for it to be updated. And that is what Mr. Sensenbrenner is trying to do with his bipartisan legislation.

As the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the Wisconsin lawmaker knows this issue inside and out. And he knows that updating this law will not only protect the American people’s right to vote but also protect the reputation of the Republican Party as a defender of civil rights in this country.

In other words, updating this law is not only good policy; it is also good politics.

So why should conservatives care about this?

Indeed, some conservatives argue that we should just allow the Supreme Court’s decision to stand and leave the VRA unenforceable.

But if Republicans and conservatives get blamed for leaving the VRA toothless or for dragging their heels on an update, they leave themselves politically vulnerable.

How can black voters have any faith in the Republican Party if the party refuses to take steps to protect their right to vote? How can Republicans have a conversation with Hispanic voters if those voters believe that the GOP isn’t taking voting rights seriously?

Republicans have already taken it on the chin with accusations from the left that they are trying to suppress the black vote. Passing the Voting Rights Act reauthorization takes a key argument away from the opposition.

There is no political risk to updating the Voting Rights Act. The law enjoys wide and deep support from all sectors of American society.

Updating the Voting Rights Act makes plenty of sense. Republicans should do — and do it soon.

Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee Online Magazine.

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