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House Democrats scrambling to rewrite the Voting Rights Act to fulfill campaign promise


A House task force is within “30 to 45 days” of releasing a report laying out which states with histories of voter suppression should be required to get permission from the federal government before changing local election laws.

The report, nearly a year in the making, is expected to propose that more states with histories of voter suppression should have to submit to “preclearance” beyond the original list of 14 jurisdictions subject to that mandate prior to the Supreme Court striking it down in 2013.

“Not only do the original 14 jurisdictions ... need to stay there, they need to be expanded,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, who is spearheading the effort as chairwoman of a House elections subcommittee. “I live in Ohio. Ohio should be a part of preclearance. Parts of Pennsylvania should be a part of preclearance. And I could go on and on,” she said.

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“We have enough data,” Fudge told McClatchy. “We have tens of thousands of pages of data. We’ve had nine hearings. We have a pretty good understanding of what the formula should be.”

When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, it required certain states with histories of voter discrimination and disenfranchisement to be “precleared” before changing voting laws. A formula was established to determine which states would be subject to this requirement.

In 2013, the Supreme Court determined the formula was out-of-date for determining which states ought to be penalized and threw it out, challenging Congress to come up with a new one.

Fudge has been leading efforts over the past 10 months to create a new formula, traveling to different states to receive testimony and compile data. But she is likely to face obstacles in the weeks ahead — from Republicans and even members of her own party.

In their eagerness to fulfill a 2018 legislative campaign promise by year-end, House Democratic leaders are moving ahead with a separate bill, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which establishes its own preclearance formula that would only apply to 11 states: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

This bill, which was passed along party lines in the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, is expected to be considered on the House floor in November.

A senior Democratic aide and a spokesman for House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., both said separately they expected Fudge’s bill would be integrated into the Voting Rights Advancement Act prior to a floor vote.

But it’s unclear how the different formulas would be reconciled in a short amount of time, especially if Democratic party leaders want to pass their bill before the end of the legislative session — and at a time when their ongoing impeachment inquiry is rapidly overshadowing everything else.

Fudge — who asked for this assignment late last year in exchange for backing Nancy Pelosi of California for House Speaker — said she was unsure why House Democratic leadership is rushing to advance a bill that might need to be updated later.

“It’s most unusual,” she said.

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a close ally of Fudge and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, supported the Voting Rights Advancement Act on Wednesday but said he would have preferred to wait for Fudge to complete her report.

“I thought it was a mistake. I thought they should have waited,” he said of the move by Democratic leaders to push the legislation forward.

Some lawmakers are concerned that if Fudge’s findings get integrated into the broader bill, her efforts to respond to the Supreme Court’s challenge could get tainted by partisanship.

GOP lawmakers say they oppose the bill because it prohibits voter ID laws and requires states to get permission before putting in place very specific election procedures that have a history of being used for discriminatory practices.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a longtime supporter of preclearance who tried to pressure House Republican leadership to restore the formula in previous congresses and helped negotiate the last bipartisan Voting Rights Act reauthorization in 2006, accused Democrats on Wednesday of advancing a “poison pill.”

“This is a messaging bill,” Rep. Steve Chabot of Ohio, another GOP proponent of the Voting RIghts Act, agreed.

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, the senior Republican on the elections subcommittee, said he felt very good about the process Fudge was undertaking and wouldn’t rule out being able to support her recommendations. But he said Democrats rushing to move the legislation through the Judiciary Committee was “tragic” and showed “they didn’t give a damn what we’ve heard in our subcommittee hearings.”

There’s no guarantee, however, that Republicans would ever support a rewrite of the preclearance formula in the Democratic-controlled House or the Republican-controlled Senate.

Some Republicans, like Sensenbrenner, wanted to address this issue when Republicans were in control of the House. But even those party leaders who claimed to be sympathetic to voting rights were hamstrung by rank-and-file lawmakers who were glad the mandate had been struck down, arguing that election laws should be left to the local governments and the old rules unfairly stigmatized their states.

While Davis insisted that Fudge was facilitating a process that could bring in Republican support, her more exhaustive list of states could end up alienating more GOP lawmakers who don’t want their states penalized. Davis conceded on Wednesday he had not yet spoken to his leadership about whether they’d support this effort.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., expressed some interest in debating the Voting Rights Act when he was the majority leader in 2015. His press office did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday regarding his current position.

National Coverage. Local Perspectives.

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