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Democrat Sounds Note of Confidence on VRA Changes

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., on the House steps from April 2012. Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call. Butterfield says he has faith that members of both parties have a special reverence for the right to vote, and that Congress will restore the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act.

Immediately after the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling last month that invalidated a major component of the Voting Rights Act, members of Congress and outside experts strongly doubted lawmakers would restore the act to its former strength anytime soon.

But don’t count Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., among the doubters.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Butterfield told me in a phone interview last week. “But I encourage you to watch it very closely. There is a sizeable number of Republicans who voted for [renewing the Voting Rights Act] in 2006 who do not want be contradictory and they understand they’re voting to protect the right to vote and I think they’re prepared to do it.”

In 2006, the Senate and House voted nearly unanimously to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its requirement that jurisdictions with a history of discriminating against minority voters in drawing districts or in voting procedures get federal approval before making voting changes.

In its June ruling, the high court declared the way of determining which jurisdictions needed to get pre-clearance for voting changes was based on a decades-old formula that treated places that had made progress in minority voting unfairly.

Congress was told to update the formula, known as Section 4 of the Act. But that would mean singling out new jurisdictions required to get Department of Justice approval for even the smallest voting change, such as moving polling places.

The conventional wisdom has been that members of Congress — especially House Republicans from the South where there has been prominent discrimination — would be loath to vote for a new formula.

But Butterfield says he has faith that members of both parties have a special reverence for the right to vote.

“It was an overwhelming vote [to renew the Act in 2006],” he said. “The court has said it is invalidating [the pre-clearance coverage formula]. So we are being challenged to rewrite a coverage formula. And that is going to be a real daunting challenge. We’re up to meeting the challenge. We’re meeting daily to try to meet the requirements.”

Butterfield is a co-chair within the Congressional Black Caucus tasked with coming up with a fix for the vacated Section 4 provision.

He said the goal is another strong vote by members of both parties.

“We’ve got to do it in a bipartisan manner whereby Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, can feel comfortable with [which jurisdictions are covered],” he said.

Butterfield says consensus is being built from a small group of House Democrats outward. He presented a plan Friday to the House Democratic leadership and described it for the NewsHour.

“We pretty much like the idea of amending [the coverage formula] to include any jurisdiction in the U.S. that has been declared to be in violation of the Voting Rights Act over the last 10 or 15 years — we haven’t agreed on the number of years — but any jurisdiction that’s been found to be in violation over the last ‘x’ number of years then they would be included [and required to submit voting changes for pre-clearance],” said Butterfield.

And he said that should satisfy the Supreme Court’s directive to update the formula.

“I think the court would accept that because [the jurisdictions] have already been found in violation of the Voting Rights Act — in recent years, not 30, 40 years ago, but recently,” he said.

And the Democrat’s plan to strengthen the act doesn’t stop there. Another part of the act triggers the requirement that a jurisdiction get future voting changes pre-cleared if a court finds it committed intentional discrimination against minority voters.

Proving that discrimination was intentional can be difficult.

So Butterfield wants a pre-clearance requirement to be triggered if a jurisdiction undertook a voting change that simply caused a discriminatory result.

“It’s so problematic to prove intent,” said Butterfield. “So what we want to do is lower the standard from the standard of intentional discrimination to discriminatory effect or discriminatory result.”

Any city, county or other jurisdiction that created such a result then would have to submit future voting changes to the Justice Department for approval.

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder asked a federal court to require Texas to submit its voting changes to his department for review because of the state’s history of discrimination.

But the attorney general — a vocal advocate for the Voting Rights Act — has said only Congress can fully protect minority rights by restoring the pre-clearance provisions of the act.

Butterfield contends that will happen before the year is out.

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