Republican leaders push bill to update Voting Rights Act

Would create a test to judge of race bias at the polls

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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.”

The bill includes a new definition of “persistent, extremely low minority turnout.”

Aides said the point was to create a separate test that could be used to spot potential discrimination in localities that weren’t big enough to have multiple adverse court rulings.

Other parts of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibit discrimination against any voter no matter the race or ethnicity, remain in place.

Subdivisions would be subject to preclearance if they are shown to have persistent low minority turnout and had one adverse judicial ruling in 15 years, or if they had three adverse court rulings. A state would be subject to preclearance if it had five documented rulings, at least one of which must be a state law.

States and subdivisions would be covered for 10 years from the latest violation.

The six jurisdictions that will be covered immediately is fewer than the number as of last year, when the Supreme Court invalidated the old formula. At that time, nine states and dozens of localities in seven others were covered.

Mr. Sensenbrenner and his fellow bill authors, Mr. Leahy and Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said they compromised in order to make the bill palatable to a broad swath in Congress.

One of those was that the bill won’t count rulings on voter identification legislation. Those laws have proved to be popular, particular among Republican-led states, though federal judges have halted some of them.

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