Politics

'No Vote, No Voice,' Says Newly Formed Voting Rights Caucus

Lawmakers draw attention to voting restrictions since 2013 SCOTUS ruling

From left, Reps. G.K. Butterfield, Terri A. Sewell, Eddie Bernice Johnson and Xavier Becerra at a news conference at the House Triangle on Tuesday to launch the Voting Rights Caucus. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Ahead of what's likely to be the first presidential election since 1965 without the Voting Rights Act in full effect, 50 members of Congress have joined to form the Voting Rights Caucus.  

The caucus will work to educate the public about voting restrictions enacted since the Supreme Court struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.  

"The caucus is long overdue," said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, speaking at a press conference outside the House of Representatives Tuesday to launch the caucus.  

Seventeen states will have voting rights restrictions in effect for the first time in a presidential election since the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, according to the Brennan Center for Justice .   

The Supreme Court struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act  in 2013 in its Shelby vs. Holder decision. The ruling effectively did away with the requirement that made certain states and congressional districts seek permission in advance, or "pre-clearance," from the federal government before changing their voting laws.  

"It is a shame that in 2016 we still need a caucus," said Alabama Rep. Terri A. Sewell, who will co-chair the new caucus.  

"Today is Tuesday in America, and on Tuesdays we have elections," Sewell said. Voters in Georgia and Texas — two states that were previously subject to pre-clearance — head to the polls Tuesday for congressional primaries .    

Also on Tuesday, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing an appeal from the state of Texas to uphold its voter ID law, which was struck down  in August for violating the federal act.  

Texas Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey, co-chairman of the Voting Rights Caucus, has been the lead plaintiff in the case against the Texas law, first passed by the state's GOP legislature in 2011.  

Republicans argue that voter ID laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud. But opponents point out that examples of actual fraud are notoriously few.   

"There are more examples of shark attacks in the United States and exploding toilets than there was of voter fraud," Washington Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen said Tuesday.  

Sewell pointed to reduced polling locations in places like Maricopa County, Arizona, during this year's presidential primaries as an example of the current burdens falling on voters.  

For years, Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act with bipartisan support. But ever since the Supreme Court invalidated the key voting rights provisions, Democrats have had trouble getting Republicans to take up legislation to fix the formula the court struck down.  

"Since when is voting rights a partisan issue?" Sewell asked. "The Supreme Court issued a challenge to Congress to come up with a modern day formula, and we've done just that," Sewell said.   

The creation of a caucus may bring attention to the members' demands, but it doesn't guarantee Congress will take action.   

Veasey declined to say whether restoration would require a Democratic House majority, and instead talked about outreach to GOP members.  

"I think we need to continue to push the Republicans to help us on this. I think that we need to keep it in front of them, we need to keep it on their conscience, we need to do outreach to religious and evangelical leaders to let them know this is bad because they have influence with Republicans as well," he said.  

Veasey complimented Wisconsin GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner for supporting the issue. In a New York Times op-ed earlier this spring, Sensenbrenner argued that Congress should take action to restore the act before the election. He introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2015 , which would make pre-clearance rules apply to every state equally.  

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski became the first GOP senator last fall to offer her support for another measure that would restore the Voting Rights Act. That bill would require states with a history of discrimination to seek pre-clearance before changing their election laws.  

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