Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan Voting Rights Act Fix (Updated)

Conyers, above, Sensenbrenner and Leahy brokered a legislative fix to the Voting Rights Act. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 3:16 p.m. | Several months after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, a bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a legislative fix.

Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., brokered the legislation, aimed at restoring federal "preclearance" of voting laws in states with a history of racial discrimination.

The Supreme Court struck down the current formula in a landmark ruling last summer and challenged Congress to revise it for the 21st century through legislation.

“Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied his or her constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color," Leahy said in a statement.

Sensenbrenner said the bill "includes strong, nationwide anti-discrimination protections and continues to permit states to enact reasonable voter ID laws. Therefore, it prevents racial discrimination and gives states the ability to address voter fraud.”

The proposal would require oversight for states where there have been five voting violations in the most recent 15-year period, and if at least one of those violations is committed by the state itself. Once a preclearance requirement is determined, it would stay in place for a 10-year period unless they receive a "bail-out."

Also, the law now only allows states to be "bailed-in" to the preclearance system when there is proof of intentional violation; new language would allow courts to subject states to federal supervision for any voting discrimination, intentional or otherwise.

It also would create a new section of the Voting Rights Act requiring states to make voters aware of election law changes in their jurisdictions, a change the sponsors hope "will deter discrimination from occurring and protect voters from discrimination."

It's not immediately clear which states would trigger preclearance under the new law.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., made a passing reference to developments on the VRA front at a news conference earlier in the day.

"I want to say that I'm pleased with what I see as bipartisan progress — and that's a good thing — that's being made on addressing the Voting Rights Act, and I think we're going to be hearing an announcement on that later today," Pelosi said. "I'm not here to announce it, but I'm here to say what's occurred in briefings and meetings we've had. While it's not the bill everyone will love, it is bipartisan, it is progress and it is worthy of support."

"We're hopeful that we can move in a good way," Conyers said. "We need to have hearings immediately, as soon as we can. That's the best sign of good faith and bipartisanship."

The effort does not yet have full buy-in from Republican leadership, said a senior GOP aide. Leaders are wary of pushback from conservative members and are skeptical that the bill could attract the support of a majority of the Republican Conference. They are also concerned that Democrats would politicize the issue to make gains in the 2014 midterm elections.

Furthermore, Sensenbrenner, a former chairman of the Judiciary Committee and an author of the last extension of the Voting Rights Act in 2006, has occasionally voted against leaders’ priorities, most recently casting a “no” vote on the omnibus appropriations bill. That has damaged his clout with leaders, the aide said.

Conyers suggested the fate of the new VRA legislation is in the hands of the House Judiciary panel's current chairman, Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va.

"I haven't raised it directly with him yet so I can't say" whether he would support the effort, Conyers conceded, "but the question may come down to whether we want to do it in parts. ... I'm not sure how this is going to play out."

Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge, D-Ohio, said she had just received the full text of the bill Thursday, but based on discussions with members, she is generally supportive.

“I’m hopeful that it is going to be something that we can all get behind. I’m sure it is not going to be what I’d like it to be, but it’s a good step in the right direction, as far as what I’ve been told,” she said.

Under the bill, the attorney general would continue, in the new bill, to have authority to request that federal observers will be on the ground in states that are under preclearance. And in a nod to Republican concerns, it would include provisions to allow states to enact "reasonable" photo identification laws.

On June 25, the Supreme Court struck down the part of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act that required a number of states with a history of racial discrimination to get formal clearance before they could change their voting rules and regulations.

The court suggested that Congress rewrite the preclearance formula for the 21st century to better reflect the progress certain states have made since the Voting Rights Act was first passed, a premise Democrats have embraced along with some Republicans, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia.

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.