Rally on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, on the day of oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder
Rally on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, on the day of oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi / NLJ)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed legislation on Thursday to repair and expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year that gutted one of the nation’s most powerful tools to fight voter discrimination.

The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 would address the Supreme Court’s reasons for striking down how the law determined which jurisdictions were required to win preclearance for changes in voting practices from a federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., writing the 5-4 ruling in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder in June, said that the old formula under Section 4 of the law was unconstitutional because it was based on outdated information and repudiated practices. 

The bill would create a new formula to re-establish preclearance for four jurisdictions—Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas—and any other state shown to have committed five or more voting rights violations during the past 15 years, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) said during a press conference. 

Any jurisdiction could be removed from the preclearance requirement by cleaning up its record on voting rights violations or petitioning a federal court, Sensenbrenner said. 

The bill was introduced in the House and Senate by Sensenbrenner, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). Its co-sponsors include Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Rep. Spencer Bachcus (R-Ala.), according to Sensenbrenner. 

Civil rights groups and the legislators themselves have pointed to shortcomings in the bill. Violations involving voter ID requirements would not count against a jurisdiction. And the bill would not re-establish preclearance for some states included under the previous formula. Most notably absent is Alabama, the origin of the Supreme Court case. 

Sensenbrenner and Lewis said the bill reflects a political compromise that shows the constitutional and political challenges for the legislation. “I think we have threaded that needle,” Sensenbrenner said. “It was not easy to do. Our staffs have spent a lot of time trying to jump through those hoops at the same time.” 

The bill would make it easier to gain preliminary injunctive relief from changes in voting practice, according to a summary provided by Leahy’s office. 

A range of civil rights groups announced support for the bill. “Although not perfect, this bill is an important first step,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., said in a written statement. 

“The bill released today provides an excellent starting point for public engagement in this process. It’s imperative that we all work together to ensure that no one is denied the right to vote, particularly on account of their race or language minority status,” Ifill said. 

Gerald Hebert, a former acting head of the voting section of the Civil Rights Division and now executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said the bill would not restore all of the former voting rights protections. 

“Nevertheless, this legislation is a clear indication that Congress recognizes the great harm done by a narrow majority of Supreme Court justices and a strong signal that members understand it is now their responsibility as the legislative branch to repair the damage done by the court,” Hebert said in a written statement. 

The U.S. Department of Justice filed voter discrimination lawsuits in Texas and North Carolina following the Supreme Court’s ruling, using the law’s remaining sections to fight voting changes in those states.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.