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Voting Rights Act at Risk?

National Archive/Newsmakers
President Lyndon B. Johnson presents one of the pens used to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to James Farmer, director of the Congress of Racial Equality on Aug. 6, 1965. The Voting Rights Act was unlike any other law in the way that it singled out for pre-emptive enforcement specific places deemed to have a history of discrimination.

Debo P. Adegbile, special counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said if the Voting Rights Act was the “centurion guarding the path to the ballot box” then the preclearance provision was its “heart” or driving force.

“It’s the tool that finally began to dislodge discrimination in the places where it was most entrenched and where earlier congressional civil rights statutes had failed,” Adegbile said during a recent interview as he readied the defense fund’s filing in the Shelby case.

The constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act was not a topic of debate when Congress took up a renewal of parts of the statute in 2005. Sensenbrenner was an ardent supporter of the law, which he thought addressed discrimination against minorities in some of the plans submitted for Justice Department review.

Sensenbrenner also was in a hurry: The preclearance section of the law would expire in August 2007, after the midterm elections and after Sensenbrenner would have to yield the Judiciary gavel under House GOP term limits. His successor as the committee’s senior Republican would be Lamar Smith of Texas.

“I wanted to get it done while I was still there as its supporter,” Sensenbrenner said. “If we waited for a new Congress to be seated, opponents could have stalled it out past the August expiration date. If the expiring sections were allowed to go out into space, it would have been much harder to reinstate them.”

Sensenbrenner teamed up with fellow committee member Melvin Watt, a Democrat from North Carolina who at that time chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, and the duo became “bipartisan partners in crime,” as Sensenbrenner puts it, to get the act renewed ahead of schedule.

The House held 12 hearings, during which 46 witnesses testified but few raised serious concerns about the statute’s renewal. The bulk of the record reinforced the continued constitutionality of the expiring provisions. One election lawyer contended that Sensenbrenner and the civil rights community failed to weigh seriously whether the statute should be updated lest the political coalitions backing the measure object.

There was opposition, though. Two Republican factions — Southerners who felt their states were unfairly singled out based on decades-old data and those who opposed a requirement that non-English-speaking voters in some areas be given language help at the polls — forced the cancellation of a vote, given a leadership rule at the time that required “majority of the majority” support for a bill to come to a vote.

The House eventually reauthorized the expiring provisions, 390-33, after rejecting four amendments. Georgia Republican Lynn Westmoreland, who had proposed an amendment that would ease preclearance procedures for his and other states, said at the time that though it might have looked as if “some old boys from the South” were trying to do away with the civil rights law, they were actually trying to save it. “These old boys are trying to make it constitutional enough that it will withstand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court,” he told The New York Times.

Changing the Record
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