Lawmakers aim to restore Voting Rights Act

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon who helped introduce the legislation on Capitol Hill Thursday, testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on the Voting Rights Act in July 2013. AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

They are often on different sides of the aisle, but on Thursday, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., joined four Democrats to introduce legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act.

The landmark 1965 legislation was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling, Shelby County v. Holder, which determined the standards used to judge whether states with a history of discrimination must seek preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws and practices were outdated.

It was initially unclear how Republicans, who typically do not curry much favor among the minority voters the law was designed to protect, would respond.  Ultimately, Sensenbrenner, who helped lead the last reauthorization of the law in 2006, joined with Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Chris Coons, D-Del., to rewrite the formula.

 “I have said all along that of all the important civil rights laws that has been passed in the last 60 or 70 years, the most important one has been the Voting Rights Act because it has been the most effective,” Sensenbrenner said at a news conference Wednesday. “Shelby County v. Holder severely wrecked the election protections that both parties have fought to maintain. This bill modernizes the Voting Rights Act and restores those protections that were gutted by the court and will ensure that every citizen has an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.”

Under the new formula crafted by Sensenbrenner, Leahy and Conyers – the latter two are the chairman and ranking member of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, respectively – all U.S. states and jurisdictions will be eligible for a review of their voting history under the same standards. A state will have to seek preclearance if they have had five voting violations in the most recent 15-year period. States that have had no violations in the past 15 years do not have to seek permission from the federal government when changing election laws or practices.

Though he said it was “not a perfect deal,” Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a leader of the civil rights movement, called the legislation “amazing to me.”

“It is unbelievable, it is almost unreal that we were able to come together so quickly to craft a compromise that both Democrats and Republicans can find a way to support and move forward,” he said.

It is not yet clear how the legislation will proceed in the House and the Senate. Sensenbrenner says he has some commitments from other Republican members that are ready to support the bill, but has only spoken to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., about it. Leahy said that the bill would not be filibustered in the Senate.

Lewis predicted it would pass in the House. “The will is here to do it,” he said.

  • Rebecca Kaplan

    Rebecca Kaplan is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.

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