There’s a ready temptation for those who dismiss any talk that Congress might agree on a way to revamp the Voting Rights Act.
Look no further, they might say, than the ideologically opposite lawmakers who have become the most visible players on the future of the law:
- John Lewis, the Atlanta Democrat and venerated hero of the civil rights movement, chosen to be the opening witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
- Trent Franks, the outspoken social conservative from Arizona who cast one of only 33 votes against the current voting rights law. GOP leaders picked him to preside over Thursday's House Judiciary session.
If there’s a shot at a deal in the next year, it may rest with two other House members who are hardly as well-known to those who watch cable television news. They are Republicans who have quite different, but equally pressing, incentives for bolstering protections for voting.
One is Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who chaired Judiciary when the Voting Rights Act was last updated in 2006. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down a central element of one of his most important legislative achievements, Sensenbrenner is ready to devote the twilight of his almost-four-decade career to winning a more lasting bipartisan triumph the second time around.
The other is Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, who was in charge of his caucus’s efforts to gain the most from redistricting for this decade. Given that last month’s court ruling will reorder some GOP tactics for maintaining the majority, and given that Westmoreland is now second in command at the National Republican Congressional Committee, he’s got as much incentive as anyone to be part of a solution that helps the party preserve its House strength — but also neutralizes accusations the GOP is out to perpetuate discrimination through legislative inflexibility.
The fact is, almost half of all the GOP’s House seats are in the South today, at least in part because the party has put the Voting Rights Act to work on its behalf. The VRA has helped them consolidate African-Americans in a relatively small number of black-majority districts that reliably send black Democrats to Congress, while still yielding a number of seats highly likely to be filled by Republicans.
If Sensenbrenner and Westmoreland can come up with a plan, it’s a solid bet a majority of their caucus would get behind it. The push at that point would be getting a big bloc of House Democrats to do likewise, which would probably grease relatively quick and easy consideration by the Senate
The key to such a rare bipartisan happening in the House is the nascent relationship between Lewis and Eric Cantor. The majority leader was the guest of the former chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at this year’s annual commemoration of “Bloody Sunday” — the day in March 1965 when a march to protest voting restrictions in Alabama was met by unprovoked police brutality as Lewis sought to lead his group across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
This summer Cantor called that visit “a profound experience” that has made him committed to rewriting the voting law in a way that “ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.” The Virginia Republican also keenly tuned in to the immediate political trouble for his party if it’s seen as walking away from the search for compromise: a surge of angry black voters boosting turnout in swing districts in 2014.
Westmoreland and Sensenbrenner have not even indicated they’re working together, however. And the last time Congress took up the law, they couldn't agree on how best to alter it. So it’s far from a sure thing they’ll get to “yes” together this time.
But what they’re searching for is pretty clear.
By 5-4, the court struck down the law’s formula for deciding which states and jurisdictions have to get permission from the federal government before redrawing their political maps or changing any voting procedures. The majority said the rules were unconstitutional because they were “based on decades-old data and eradicated practices,” but Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that Congress was free to come up with “another formula based on current conditions.”
That’s way more complex than it sounds, of course. What newer data would reflect the sorts of voting suppression the law wants to ferret out? Voter registration rates? Precinct turnout percentages? Incidents of past federal voting rights violations?
For how long could those statistics be used before they’d be constitutionally suspect as out of date? And how could the formula be crafted so the states of the Deep South won't be subject to the overwhelming majority of the scrutiny?
At first blush, the formula most members of Congress might countenance looks to involve a complex combination of data from the past several elections, updated routinely and applied uniformly across the entire country — with the expectation that the bulk of jurisdictions would be “precleared” as a matter of routine to conduct elections as they saw fit.
An enormous roster of details would have to be sorted out, and the impetus for deadlock still outweighs the incentives for a deal. But if there’s going to be one, members seldom seen on TV will have to get to work after the cameras look away from this week’s hearings.