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Conservatives not keen on effort to revise key section of Voting Rights Act

Conservative Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee showed little desire Thursday to revive the section of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court last month.

Republican members indicated they either don’t see a need to revise and resurrect the now-invalidated Section 4 of the law, or they’d impose terms that would be politically unpalatable to Democrats for trying to revise it, or they just don't want to talk about the issue right now.

In last month’s decision involving Shelby County, Ala., the court struck down Section 4, the formula determining which jurisdictions had to seek Justice Department pre-approval or “pre-clearance” for changes in voting procedures. Section 5 of the law, which required pre-clearance of voting procedures, remains in place, but without Section 4 there’s no way to apply Section 5.

After chairing a hearing of a House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution on voting rights, Chairman Trent Franks, R-Ariz., said he agreed with one of the witnesses, Hans von Spakovsky of conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, who during his testimony compared the pre-clearance requirement to throwing a person in jail without trial and then requiring them to try to prove their innocence.

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Von Spakovsky also said, “There’s no reason for Congress to take any action,” because there are other remedies in the remainder of the Voting Rights Act that were not affected by last month’s Supreme Court’s decision.

Franks called the pre-clearance requirement a form of “prior restraint” and said he didn’t want to “re-create that prior restraint,” but did want to “do everything that we could to make sure that all voting rights were recognized and enforced.”

In his statement at the hearing Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., emphasized that under the Supreme Court’s decision, “other very important provisions of the Voting Rights Act remain in place, including Sections 2 and 3.”

Section 2 prohibits voting procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or the ability to speak English. Section 3 authorizes federal courts to impose preclearance requirements on jurisdiction that enact intentionally discriminatory voting procedures.

Goodlate told reporters he had no further comments as he left the hearing.

Another member of the subcommittee Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said if the House does a rewrite of Section 4, then it should re-open the entire Voting Rights Act and rethink parts of it – including the 25-year extension of Section 5 in 2006. His objection to the length of that extension led him to vote against the law in 2006.

King also suggested if Congress reopened the law, it would also question the need for multilingual ballots and might get rid of them. “If Democrats want to have that discussion and see how that works, I’m all for that,” King said after the hearing.

While the Iowa Republican acknowledged that the law “has improved things,” he also said “it has been abused, and in the end I’m looking at the politics of this (Obama) administration which is very much about identifying people by race and ethnicity and occasionally pitting them against each other.”

He added “in the wrong hands, say at (the) Justice (Department) it does more damage than it does good.”

Also at the hearing and striking a different note from King was Rep. Steve Chabot, R- Ohio, who supported the 2006 reauthorization of section 4 and had urged the high court to not strike it down.

“I’m hoping that both this committee and the full committee and the full House and the Senate can work together in a bipartisan manner to come up with a reasonable formula that will allow the protections that have been there for many years to remain,” Chabot said after leaving the hearing.

He acknowledged that “there’s a difference of opinion on the need for coming up with a new formula,” but stressed that he thinks the coverage formula is important and the law bill be weakened if it doesn’t exist.

Chabot’s ally, Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who shepherded the 2006 reauthorization, is trying to rewrite Section 4 to conform to the Supreme Court’s decision, but Chabot and Sensenbrenner seem to be outliers among the 234 House Republicans.

On the Senate side, Republican Whip Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said Thursday "I really don't" see any need to rewrite section 4 "because I think the same rule ought to apply to the whole country. And section 5 since 1965 has been successful" in eradicating barriers to voting and increasing minority voting participation. "I don't see any objection to a uniform rule, which is section 2, which I think provides the enforcement mechanism nationwide."

A decision by Republicans to not act would give Democrats another mobilizing issue for the 2014 elections as they seek to maximize turnout by the liberal, African-American, and Latino voters who make up much of their base.

Before Thursday’s House Judiciary subcommittee hearing, one of its Democratic members, Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee, who represents a black-majority district based in Memphis, said the only way the House would take up legislation to revise section 4 would be if Democrats win back control in next year’s elections.

Asked whether he thought Republicans will make any effort to revise section 4, Cohen said, “Absolutely not. They want to thwart people’s right to vote. They’ve shown it regularly. All those voter ID laws, all the changes in precincts at the last minute, their redistricting processes….Do you think those people at the Republican National Committee who want to stop older people, African-Americans, Hispanics and students from voting … really want to put those states (that had been covered by section 5 of the Voting Rights Act) under the thumb of the federal government? Absolutely not.”

Cohen called Sensenbrenner “sincere” in wanting to try to repair section 4 and said that, in theory, a group of like-minded Republicans led by Sensenbrenner could join the House Democrats to pass a bill, but “that would violate the Hastert rule,” which is the practice of passing only those bills that can win a majority of the House Republicans.

To this, King responded, “Republicans seem to cower in terror when anybody implies that they might be racist – that sometimes brings about bad policy. If the antidote to that is the Hastert rule, that would an option I would be looking at”