Key lawmakers announced a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act on Thursday, creating a test to judge which states are still so discriminatory that they need federal scrutiny of their voting decisions — moving to revive the iconic law just months after the Supreme Court declared part of it unconstitutional.
In their June decision, the justices said Congress couldn’t use discrimination from four decades ago to single out states for special federal scrutiny, so the proposal would update the test to look at recent federal court rulings that found a state or municipality violated voting laws.
“This bill modernizes the Voting Rights Act and will restore those protections that were gutted by the court,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who oversaw the last bipartisan approval of the law in 2006.
The bill is likely to ignite a fierce political debate over racial progress and lingering structural barriers that remain decades after the civil rights era, but Mr. Sensenbrenner and his co-sponsors said they wrote this version specifically to garner support from both sides of the aisle.
They said they want Congress to pass the revisions in time for November’s congressional elections.
Where the old standards singled out some states, the current bill makes clear that any state or municipality could be subject to stiffer scrutiny if it is found to have a recent history of voting problems.
Four states — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia — would be covered immediately, as would Charleston County, S.C., and Northampton County, Va., congressional aides said.
The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965 and has gained a reputation as one of the most successful major federal laws in history. It is credited with helping millions of Americans gain or maintain the ability to vote in fair elections.
The law generally bans discrimination in voting, but goes further and requires states deemed to have histories of discrimination to submit any voting changes — including moving voting precincts — to the federal government for “preclearance.”
But the justices last year, in a 5-4 ruling, said Congress ignored years of racial advances when it renewed the law but kept the 40-year-old formula to determine racism in voting. The court left most of the law in place but invalidated the formula, meaning that nobody was subject to special federal scrutiny.
Passing the rewrite could be tricky. It is likely to move smoothly through the Senate, where Democrats control the chamber and where Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said he doubted it would be filibustered. But the bill also will have to clear the GOP-controlled House.
Mr. Sensenbrenner said he has reached out to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, to pitch the legislation, but Mr. Cantor’s office was noncommittal Thursday.
“We look forward to reviewing the final text,” said spokesman Rory Cooper.
Hans A. von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the bill “an absolute disaster” and said it would write race-based criteria into one part of what had been a race-neutral law.
“For the first time, Sensenbrenner’s bill actually says that the protections of this amendment will only apply to racial minority groups, and they defined them in the law, and it specifically excludes white voters,” Mr. von Spakovsky said. “They’re basically giving a ‘get out of jail free’ card to black elected officials in the South, where they can discriminate all they want against white voters.”