By Vivake Prasad and Morgan Lee
AFJ Summer Associates

On Thursday, July 18, the House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice held a hearing on the status of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) after Shelby County v. Holder struck down Section 4 of the law.  That section determined which states required preclearance before making changes to voting laws and procedures.  The hearing opened with a statement by Chairman Trent Franks, R-Ariz., one of only 33 Republicans in Congress to vote against the reauthorization of the VRA in 2006.  The overarching message from the Republican subcommittee members paralleled Chief Justice John Roberts’s Shelby County opinion: legislative remedies should respond to current conditions, and removal of the coverage formula in Section 4(b) does not spell doom for the VRA because it leaves intact other mechanisms for remedying voter discrimination.

Rep. Franks remarked on the virtues of reviewing allegations of voter discrimination under Section 3, which allows “bail-in” of jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination, subjecting them to preclearance under Section 5.  Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, notable for racially insensitive and controversial comments on immigration, took it one step further into the absurd, saying any update to the VRA should ban multilingual ballots.

Prof. Spencer Overton

The panel of witnesses made the gulf between the current positions of the two parties eminently clear.  The four witnesses included two opponents of the VRA’s coverage formula: J. Christian Adams of the conservative Election Law Center and Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation. Also testifying were two advocates for voting rights: Professor Spencer Overton of George Washington University Law School and Robert A. Kengle of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Adams referred to voter discrimination in the country as “vague and attenuated so-called second-generational structural discrimination,” and stated that this was not enough to warrant federal intervention. The former DOJ Voting Section attorney argued that the low number of investigations brought under Section 2 since President Obama took office was evidence of virtually non-existent voting discrimination. Notwithstanding Adams’s logically dubious assertion – for example, reduced Section 2 enforcement could be a product of limited resources or the deterrent effects of Section 5 – his testimony omitted the fact that Section 5 preclearance, based on the Section 4(b) coverage formula, has preempted numerous discriminatory proposals for voting changes.  Indeed, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., held up a binder containing 72 Department of Justice (DOJ) objections to proposed voting changes between 2000 and 2012. Adams, who served in the Department of Justice under George W. Bush, is known for racially inflammatory remarks. He recently suggested that the DOJ would be acting in concert with the New Black Panthers if it decided to pursue charges against George Zimmerman.

Von Spakovsky, who, while working in the Justice Department, shifted the DOJ Civil Rights Division’s focus from voter protection to “voter fraud” and is a vocal proponent of voter ID laws, was similarly extreme in his remarks. Arguing that voter discrimination has virtually disappeared since 1965, he repeatedly cited a favorite statistic of Voting Rights Act opponents: Black voter registration and voting rates now outnumber that of whites in districts covered by Section 5, due in part to something he termed “apartheid redistricting.” As Justice Ginsburg would say, von Spakovsky clearly prefers to throw out his umbrella during a rainstorm.

Furthermore, even though Shelby County explicitly refrained from making a determination on the constitutionality of Section 5, that did not stop von Spakovsky from suggesting that preclearance was no longer necessary since the American Civil Liberties Union has assets of $360 million to fight individual cases on behalf of disenfranchised minority voters.  But Overton aptly pointed out that the cost and burdens of that level of litigation would be prohibitive to many victims of voter discrimination – costs borne not only by the litigants, but by the Department of Justice and the taxpayers.

Thursday’s hearing made clear the challenges for congressional action after Shelby County. While House GOP members made few comments, Rep. King stated that any congressional effort with regards to voting rights would have to include provisions for voter ID and English-only ballots. Additionally, the extreme nature of the conservative witnesses’ testimony suggests that a compromise may be hard-won.

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