Democrats Set Stage for Supreme Court Defense of Voting Rights Act Provision

The U.S. Supreme Court building. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

With the Supreme Court set to hear a challenge to a main provision of the Voting Rights Act in February, advocates argued Wednesday that the November elections only underscored the need for the law and its protections of minority voting rights.

The high court will hear a challenge by Shelby County, Ala., that the so-called “pre-clearance” portion of the act, which requires jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to get approval of the Justice Department before making changes to their voting rules, is unconstitutional.

But opening a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said he was concerned even before Election Day about a “renewed effort in many states to deny millions of Americans access to the ballot box through voter purges and voter identification laws,” adding, “what we saw during the election shows that we were right to be concerned. Purges of voter rolls, restrictions on voter registration, and limitations on early voting…led to unnecessary and avoidable problems.”

Before and after Election Day, Democrats charged that Republican state officials and their advocates pushed tactics including new voter identification requirements, elimination of early and weekend voting — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — to encumber participation by blacks, Latinos, the elderly and the poor — groups that disproportionately favored President Obama and other Democrats.

Leahy said even though many people managed to vote despite hours’ long lines at the polls and administrative hang-ups, the “barriers…remind us of a time when discriminatory practices such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were commonplace…barriers that seem to fall heaviest on African-Americans, Hispanics, military veterans, college students, the poor, and senior citizens.”

The 1965 Voting Rights with its pre-clearance provision was renewed most recently in 2006 by an overwhelming vote of Congress.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, supported it then and in earlier iterations. As one of only a handful of senators at today’s hearing and the only GOP member, Grassley said, “it seems to me in any discussion of voting rights, the terms ‘disenfranchisement’ and ‘suppression’ are thrown about sometimes in a cavalier fashion.”

Grassley said Republican-led efforts to clean up voter rolls of ineligible voters and require voters to present identification at the polls were aimed at improving the election process.

“Comparing commonsense voter I.D. requirements which enjoy support of three-quarters of the electorate and even a majority of Democrats to poll taxes or worse trivializes the suffering of minority Americans who were denied the right to vote.”

But Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a member of the South Carolina state House, testified that an I.D. to vote is indeed “something difficult to come by when you don’t have documentation” like some of her poor, rural constituents.

She said even “a free I.D. in reality is not simple for a woman who is divorced and the name change [requires an] expense. If you were delivered by a midwife and [the only birth record is] in a family Bible…the issue for us not the I.D. It’s the difficulty of documentation.”

Cobb-Hunter also said securing an I.D. to vote is “very difficult if you’re 75 miles from the county seat. So the barriers are there.”

Also testifying was Arizona Secretary of Atate Ken Bennett, who said there’s been no empirical evidence to prove state officials’ actions toward “cleaning up the rolls” diminished voting by eligible Latinos there, as some have charged.

Bennett also told the committee that even though two-thirds of Arizonans voted by mail in the last election, his state would like to institute “voting centers” where voters from a wide geographical area could come to vote avoiding long lines at some precincts.

He said voting equipment paid for under the federal Help America Vote Act is “ending its life cycles” and while Arizona has plans to find ways to pay for elections “resources are getting very thin.”

Closing the hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who held field hearings before the election about voter I.D. laws and other changes, said Democrats and their allies remain “concerned” about the effect of voting changes in some states.