[WASHINGTON, D.C.] – Today, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, held a hearing on how federal law can protect against discriminatory voting restrictions that are actively being implemented by states. Today’s hearing, “Restoring the Voting Rights Act: Combating Discriminatory Abuses,” examined how the Supreme Court’s decision to strike the preclearance coverage formula in Shelby County v. Holder has weakened the Voting Rights Act and led to a wave of proposed restrictions to the ballot box.
“Protecting that right to vote – the equal opportunity to participate in the political process – is not a matter of partisanship, but of fulfilling the founding ideals of our nation. Nothing is more fundamental – nothing – than the right to vote and we must protect it from the torrent of restrictions that threaten it,” Blumenthal said during his opening remarks.
Blumenthal cited more than 400 bills to restrict voting access introduced in 49 states across the country this year to highlight the recent attack on voting rights. “These laws make mail voting and early voting more difficult, they manipulate the boundaries of districts to reduce minority representation, [and] they’ve led to a purge already of up to 3.1 million voters from the rolls in areas that were once covered by the Voting Rights Act preclearance requirement.”
For nearly five decades, the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance coverage formula provision required certain states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to obtain approval from the federal government before implementing any voting rules changes. The Supreme Court struck that formula in Shelby County, but in so doing it left open a path for other preclearance formulas, including what is known as practice-based coverage. Practice-based coverage would require federal preclearance in jurisdictions that have adopted voting practices that are known to correlate with racial or language-based discrimination in those jurisdictions that have a sufficiently high racial or language minority voting age population.
Blumenthal referenced that before the Shelby County decision, “the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice, and ordinary voters were able to use the preclearance process to halt the implementation of well over 1,000 discriminatory election rules proposed by state and local officials before those rules went into effect and had a repressive impact.” He also called on the Senate to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which, “includes new formulas to revive preclearance and protect the right to vote,” and is, “narrowly tailored and targeted to those known practices that have been repeatedly used to suppress the vote based on discrimination”
In response to unsubstantiated claims that Democrats support voter fraud and weaponizing voting laws for partisan advantage, Blumenthal said, “What you’ve just heard is a partisan diatribe with very little connection to facts. But put aside the tenuous connection to reality, what’s most disturbing is the partisan nature of that attack because the Voting Rights Act used to be bipartisan. It was reauthorized again and again and again with overwhelming bipartisan support because it protected the right to vote which is a deeply American value. It’s not Republican, it’s not Democrat, it’s not southern, it’s not northeast.”
A transcript of Blumenthal's opening remarks is copied below.
Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act, as you all know, to confront one of the country’s most enduring and deepest faults – the continued denial of equal participation and representation to citizens on account of their race. A century after the Civil War ended, our nation still failed to eradicate the light of racial discrimination in voting and the promise of political equality remained unfulfilled for Black citizens. In accomplishing what the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments had failed to do, the Voting Rights Act became in the words of President Lyndon Johnson, “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.”
Congress reevaluated the continuing necessity of the Voting Rights Act five times between 1970 and 2006. Each time, it authorized the act with overwhelming bipartisan support. Congress didn’t take this task lightly, each authorization was accompanied by countless hearings, voluminous fact finding, and it consistently led to the conclusion that the Voting Rights Act played and continues to play a continuing indispensable role in securing the Constitution’s promises. Because of the Voting Rights Act, the Department of Justice and ordinary voters were able to use the preclearance process to halt the implementation of well over one thousand, one thousand discriminatory election rules proposed by state and local official’s before those rules went into effect and had a repressive impact.
But in recent years, the Supreme Court has all but disregarded Congress’ judgement about the continued need for the Voting Rights Act and has begun undermining the core protections including preclearance. Most importantly, for the purposes of today’s hearing, in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, the court rendered a 5-4 intensely partisan decision that overruled Congress’ judgement. Although the court ostensibly left preclearance intact, it invalidated the formula that determined which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance, and it thereby rendered the law essentially dead letter.
This year alone, we’ve experienced the most destructive legislative session for voting rights in generations, with states and localities enacting a torrent of new voting restrictions. Between January 1st and July 14th of this year, more than four hundred bills that included provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in forty-nine states during that time, eighteen states successfully enacted thirty laws that made it harder for people to vote. These laws make mail voting and early voting more difficult, they manipulate the boundaries of districts to reduce minority representation, they’ve led to a purge already of up to 3.1 million voters from the roles in areas that were once covered by the Voting Rights Act preclearance requirement.
Through decades of experience, Congress has learned that much of the success of the Voting Rights Act came from its capacity to meet ever new forms of discrimination. Justice Ginsburg in her very powerful dissent in Shelby County pointed to the vile infection of racial discrimination in voting and said it, “resembled battling the hydra, whenever one form of voting discrimination was identified and prohibited, others sprang up in its place.”
Today’s reinvigorated efforts to deprive members of minority groups from equal access to the ballot box through more subtle, second generation barriers proves that a new preclearance regime is needed now more than ever and that’s why we are here today. Our response to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passed by the House this year and introduced in the Senate last Congress. It includes new formulas to revive preclearance and protect the right to vote.
We’re here today to focus on one of those best known practices or practice-based coverage formula, which specifies types of restrictive practices that we’ve seen again and again and again. Repeated known practices. They impose discriminatory effects and our goal is to prevent those discriminatory effects in areas of increasing diversity before they can do damage. The new practice-based preclearance regime responds directly to the Supreme Court’s concerns with the prior preclearance formula and it will allow the Voting Rights Act to keep pace with present conditions and America’s rapid changing demographics. It is narrowly tailored and targeted, let me repeat, narrowly tailored and targeted to those known practices that have been repeatedly used to suppress the vote based on discrimination.
Protecting that right to vote, the equal opportunity to participate in the political process is not a matter of partisanship, but of fulfilling the founding ideals of our nation. Nothing is more fundamental, nothing, than the right to vote and we must protect it from the torrent of restrictions that threaten it. Thank you all and I now turn to the ranking member.