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Democrats push for new Voting Rights Act before maps are drawn

Republicans decry ‘power grab,’ rush to vote on bill

Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana accused Democrats of trying to mount a federal "power grab" by trying to pass a bill that would restore the Justice Department's power to preclear district maps in some states.
Republican Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana accused Democrats of trying to mount a federal "power grab" by trying to pass a bill that would restore the Justice Department's power to preclear district maps in some states. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Facing pressure from civil rights groups, House Democrats kicked an effort to pass a new Voting Rights Act into high gear this week, despite intense Republican opposition.

Over the weekend and during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing Monday, House Democrats stated their intention to vote on the measure as soon as next week. Civil rights groups have pushed for the passage of the new bill for months, but the release of new census data last week brought the issue to a head.

Wendy Weiser, vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, argued that allowing redistricting to proceed without a new Voting Rights Act could allow minority voting rights to backslide. Weiser told the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties on Monday that Congress should pass a new law that would allow the Justice Department to review election law changes, such as new congressional maps, before they go into effect.

“This is a perilous moment for the nation’s commitment to equal citizenship, an era of voting rights retrenchment still. The current problem of voting discrimination and vote suppression is enormous and it is about to get much bigger as states and localities across the country begin their redistricting,” Weiser said.

Last week, the Census Bureau released a trove of detailed data that states and local governments will use for once-a-decade redistricting. Democrats in Congress along with voting rights advocates argued that some states could use the data to restrict the voting power of growing minority groups, such as Hispanic and Latino voters.

A 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, invalidated the Justice Department’s formula for keeping states under Voting Rights Act preclearance. Prior to that decision, nine mostly southern states had to clear any voting changes with the DOJ, ranging from polling places to new legislative maps.

Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., argued during Monday’s hearing that decision “set up a discriminatory game of whack-a-mole,” that surviving provisions of the VRA could not address.

Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, said in an interview the Supreme Court decision “basically gutted the Voting Rights Act and got rid of the protections we needed for decades.” Her group and others have backed the passage of a new Voting Rights Act, pushing Democrats to advance the legislation.

Kumar also argued that without preclearance, states like Texas will have a freer hand to draw maps that don’t give the growing Latino population more seats in Congress. In the days since the Census Bureau’s data release, dozens of civil rights groups have called on members of minority communities to advocate for more inclusive maps and urged Democrats to pass the legislation.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sent a letter to House Democrats criticizing Senate Democrats for not advancing broader legislation that would have overhauled voting, campaign finance and ethics laws. Pelosi said the House would vote on new Voting Rights Act language when the chamber returns next week.

The House passed a version of the legislation last Congress, which was not taken up in the Republican-controlled Senate at the time. This Congress, the House Administration and Judiciary committees held a series of hearings on election law changes before introducing new language to build a record ahead of an anticipated court challenge.

The Biden administration has backed those efforts, including in testimony Monday from Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for civil rights. Clarke argued “redistricting is a moment where we see discrimination rear its ugly head,” and that could reemerge if Congress did not pass a new law.

“There is no doubt this new round of census data — may — may prompt the kinds of discriminatory changes that we’ve seen in the past,” Clarke said.

Democrats and advocates argued that a new formula would allow a rolling consideration for preclearance; an accumulation of violations over 20 years would subject a state to preclearance for a decade.

Several advocates and Democrats have discussed addressing another Supreme Court decision from this year, which legal experts have said restricts the ability to bring lawsuits alleging discrimination after the fact.

Clarke cautioned against Congress legislating beyond the preclearance provisions after several questions about how the DOJ could use changes on other provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., called Democrats’ efforts an “unconstitutional federal power grab over local election laws.” Johnson argued Democrats have bowed to advocacy groups who seek to control local voting laws through a smokescreen of discrimination claims.

“It is easier for eligible Americans to vote than ever before in American history,” Johnson said.

Johnson and other Republicans on the panel criticized Democrats for planning a vote on the legislation before actually introducing the language.

Republican witnesses at hearings over the past few months, including the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, have argued an update to the Voting Rights Act is not necessary.

An overhaul to the law faces a steep climb in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has opposed the bill and only one Republican, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, has said she may back the measure.

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