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Protests from a broad cross-section of Republican lawmakers who assert they were shut out of negotiations on the Voting Rights Act prompted House leaders to scrub a vote on the measure Wednesday, throwing reauthorization of the landmark 1965 law into an uncertain future despite initial expectations of an easy renewal.
House GOP leaders removed the reauthorization bill from the chamber’s calendar following a contentious Republican Conference meeting in which Members at one point chanted in unison for the legislation to be dropped from consideration.
“Most of us felt we had been cut out,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who criticized the “heavy-handed way it had been pushed through and rammed down everyone’s throats as though it was fait accompli.”
In particular, Rohrabacher and other Republican lawmakers cited the refusal of House leadership to permit consideration of half a dozen amendments that focused on provisions of the law that provide for multilingual ballots.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who unsuccessfully sought an amendment lifting the requirement of such ballots, asserted Wednesday that a “a significant portion of our Conference supports our position.”
Although the House Judiciary Committee defeated King’s amendment during its mark-up of the bill, he pointed to similar stand-alone legislation he has sponsored that has garnered more than 166 co-sponsors.
Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.), who has also criticized portions of the legislation, called the exclusion of those amendments “a serious mistake.”
“I’ve tried very, very hard over the last two days to get an agreement on more than just my amendment,” Norwood said in reference to his own proposal, one of two amendments that the House Rules Committee approved for consideration when it met late Tuesday night.
Both of those amendments, the only approved from a dozen reviewed by the panel, target rules that require the Justice Department to approve any changes to voting practices in certain, primarily Southern, states.
Norwood’s proposal would modify the formula used to determine which jurisdictions would be governed by the VRA’s Section 5, which mandates that states with a documented history of discrimination must “pre-clear” any changes to electoral practices with the Justice Department.
The Georgia lawmaker and others have argued that the existing formula is outdated and unfairly targets states including his own. Nine states are currently governed by the law, as well as numerous jurisdictions elsewhere.
The new formula would take into account statistics gleaned from the three most recent presidential elections on a rolling basis, rather than the static figures on which it is now based.
In addition, the new formula would subject any state to Section 5 requirements should it be determined that a state has a “discriminatory test” in place, or if voter turnout falls below 50 percent in any of those three elections.
The other amendment allowed by Rules would address a related section of the VRA that provides a mechanism for jurisdictions to “bailout” or be relieved from those regulations if officials can prove no discriminatory voting practices have occurred in a 10-year period.
Norwood has criticized the bailout process as extremely difficult. Under the amendment authored by Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Ga.), the Justice Department would be required to assemble a list of those jurisdictions eligible for the bailout and then issue notifications to those groups.