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Cantor Calls For a Voting Rights Act Fix

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The House’s second-ranking Republican signaled a concrete interest in repairing the parts of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s interest, he said in a statement Tuesday evening, was one born of a personal experience.

Earlier this year, the Virginia Republican participated in the congressional delegation that Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., leads back to Selma, Ala., annually. That pilgrimage visits the sites of the civil rights movement, particularly one where, during a nonviolent demonstration, an explosion of police brutality erupted that left Lewis, then a young activist, with severe injuries.

“My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all,” Cantor said. “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a reasonable path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”

Earlier in the day, the court handed out a 5-4 decision that struck down a provision of the landmark legislation that required some states to obtain federal approval for revising its voting laws and regulations. The states targeted included those with a history of voter disenfranchisement, predominantly those in the South.

Many Republicans, including Gregg Harper of Mississippi and Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, issued statements throughout the day noting the court’s ruling as one that recognized the gains their states had made since the first iteration of the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 in response to racial discrimination at the polls.

Westmoreland said no one should be surprised that the court ruled part of the act unconstitutional given that the criteria used to determine discrimination were outdated.
“We no longer suffer from the voting rights issues we saw in 1965 that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act,” he said in his statement.

He offered an amendment in 2006 that would have updated the law, and, like Cantor, wants to fix it.

“If my colleagues had only joined me in updating the law, we would not be at a place where the VRA has essentially become toothless,” he said. He proposed using data from the three most recent presidential elections to determine which states would be subject to preclearance.

Members of GOP leadership, however — among them Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio — have by and large declined to weigh in, letting comments made by Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., speak for themselves.

“The 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act did not change the criteria that determines which jurisdictions are subject to the special rules that require them to get advance pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or a federal court before they can change their voting rules,” he said. “The Supreme Court has now decided that original coverage formula does not meet constitutional requirements.  This decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which remains in place.”

Many Democrats, meanwhile — including House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland — have called for Congress to come together to develop a new way of picking states that must receive federal approval before revising voting laws, a call echoed by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who wrote the majority opinion and called the current formula outdated.

Though Cantor’s statement is significant, it stopped short of suggesting what sort of legislative remedy he deemed appropriate. Cantor also did not acknowledge the reality of just how difficult it might be to get both parties, and both chambers, to agree on such a remedy given general partisan divisiveness.

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