Congress Considers New Voting Rights Laws After Supreme Court Broadens State Authority

September 17, 2019 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — Congress considered options at a hearing last week on how to guarantee easier access to voter registration during a continuing struggle over states’ rights.

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to review the consequences of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The decision removed obstacles to states setting many of their own rules on voter registration.

Congress is considering legislation that could redefine state authority after reports some legislatures are engaging in abuses.

Critics of the ruling say it allows states to set voter rules that exclude underprivileged residents. Witnesses at the congressional hearing named Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Texas as the worst offenders.

The states often use their authority under the Shelby County ruling to ban convicted felons from voting, require photo ID’s, limit the number of polling places and redraw voting districts.

Civil rights leaders say the photo ID requirement excludes low-income persons who might lack drivers licenses. The other restrictions often prevent minority residents from voting, according to critics of the Supreme Court ruling.

The ruling gutted two sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

One provision required states to obtain federal preclearance before changing their voting laws. The other granted the federal government a higher degree of supervision of state voting laws based on their histories of discrimination.

The state legislatures say their new rules and authority are designed to prevent voter fraud by making residents more accountable and keeping out troublemakers.

At the hearing this week, Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, argued that the federal government preclearance and supervision of states should be reinstated by Congress. The leading congressional bill to reinstate preclearance is the “Voting Rights Advancement Act” (H.R. 4 / S. 561).

A second pending bill, the “For the People Act” (H.R. 1 / S. 949), would promote automatic voter registration, same-day voter registration and restore voting rights of ex-felons.

“The Center for American Progress issued a report in which they found that there were several ‘voter suppression measures’ and other Election Day problems that potentially kept millions of eligible Americans from participating in the 2018 midterm elections,” Johnson said in his testimony.

The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Under Law released a report this week showing that 1,700 polling places were closed in southern states after the 2013 Shelby County ruling.

Texas alone closed 750 polling places, the report says. In Arizona, 13 of the state’s 15 counties closed the voting locations, particularly in places high in the number of Hispanic residents.

“We must recognize that closures are taking place at alarming speed amid broader efforts to prevent people of color from voting,” said Vanita Gupta, president of the Leadership Conference. “And meanwhile, states are under no obligation to evaluate the discriminatory impacts of such closures. This is exactly why we need to restore the Voting Rights Act and all of its protections.”

Gupta put part of the blame on the Trump administration, saying, “Restoring preclearance is all the more important under an administration that refuses to challenge discriminatory voting measures. Not a single case has been opened, including barriers to registration, restrictive voter ID requirements and polling place closures.”

Other jurisdictions are using their broader authority over voter registration to include more residents at polling places.

The District of Columbia Council is considering legislation that would make it the nation’s first jurisdiction to allow convicted felons to vote while they are imprisoned.

In Maryland, state lawmakers last year approved legislation that automatically registers residents to vote when they deal with several state agencies.

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