Democrats Commemorate Voting Rights Act Anniversary as Legislative Fix Remains Elusive

Lewis, right, is greeted by David Goodman, brother of the civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, who was killed in Mississippi in 1964, before a news conference and vigil at the House Triangle to support of the Voting Rights Amendment Act on June 24. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Democrats commemorated the 48th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act last year with hopes that by today a fix for the landmark law would have reached President Barack Obama's desk.  

But on Wednesday, its 49th birthday came and went with no clear endgame for advancing legislation, and lawmakers took to email inboxes and social media to articulate their continued determination to get something done.  

"Until House Republican leadership works with Democrats to protect this fundamental right, [voting rights] will continue to be at risk," said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York. House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland agreed.  

"Congress ought to take action to move our legislation forward quickly, and I hope the House Majority will bring it to the Floor when we return in September," Hoyer said of bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Judiciary Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner.  

Other sentiments were more aspirational. Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, said in a statement that, "we must honor the sacrifices made by those within the Civil Rights Movement, including the Members of Congress who diligently worked to pass the VRA. Every citizen must exercise their right to vote in every election, and Congress must do all it can to protect it."  

And Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who as a young man was almost beaten to death by a foe of the civil rights movement, tweeted a picture of of him receiving from President Lyndon B. Johnson a pen that was used to sign the Voting Rights Act into law in 1965.


Twelve months ago, proponents had some reason to be optimistic.  

The Supreme Court earlier in the summer of 2013 had struck down the VRA's main enforcement mechanism: A formula by which states with patterns of disenfranchisement would have to get permission from the federal government to revise its voting rules and regulations.  

The court, in a 5-4 ruling, called on Congress to modernize the formula to recognize the strides certain states had made in the intervening decades since the passage of the law. The problem was, with Congress also at the peak of its own dysfunction, getting lawmakers to agree on which states to target in a modernized "pre-clearance requirement" seemed like an impossible task.  

Except that Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., then the House majority leader, said he would support the effort in the chamber, speaking with a louder voice on the issue than any of his peers in GOP leadership. And for the next several months he worked with Democrats and some Republican colleagues, too, to see whether there was an appetite for moving legislation and ultimately getting a bill on the House floor calendar.  

Then Cantor lost his primary on June 10.  

Some members, like Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., said they suspected his intentions were pure.  

“I think Eric Cantor would have stepped forward in the best traditions of Judaism and tried to give people rights and opportunities,” Cohen told CQ Roll Call after a June 25 rally on Capitol Hill calling attention to the cause.  “I think his defeat makes it less likely that Republicans will have that voice within their caucus.”  

Other members said that while they were gratified to have Cantor's support, they weren't ever completely sure the House's No. 2 Republican would actually be capable of executing such a heavy lift.  

“I think he was slow-walking this thing the whole time,” Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., said during that same rally.