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Voting Rights Debate Reignites Heading into MLK Holiday

FERGUSON, MO - NOVEMBER 04: Residents cast their votes at a polling place on November 4, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. In last Aprils election only 1,484 of Ferguson's 12,096 registered voters cast ballots. Community leaders are hoping for a much higher turnout for this election. Following riots sparked by the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, a Ferguson police officer, residents of this majority black community on the outskirts of St. Louis have been forced to re-examine race relations in the region and take a more active role in the region's politics. Two-thirds of Fergusons population is African American yet five of its six city council members are white, as is its mayor, six of seven school board members and 50 of its 53 police officers. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images) Scott Olson / Getty Images

A day after a top Republican seemed to dismiss the need to restore a critical part of the Voting Rights Act, lawmakers Thursday told NBC News they would reintroduce bipartisan voting rights legislation next week, in what the Congressional Black Caucus says will be a massive effort to aggressively defend voting rights.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., on Wednesday suggested other sections of the Voting Rights Act are already strong enough. “To this point, we have not seen a process forward that is necessary to protect people because we think the Voting Rights Act is providing substantial protection in this area right now,” Goodlatte said while speaking to reporters at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

Calling Goodlatte’s statement a “bombshell,” the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C., warned “If Bob Goodlatte is speaking for the Republican Conference, this is a very serious development because we are going to push back in a very significant way against the unwillingness of the Republicans to take up extending section five protections.”

Civil rights leader and Assistant Democratic Leader Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., responded to Goodlatte in a phone interview with NBC News saying, “the world is replete with people who disavow the notion that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Clyburn, who was chosen by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to lead the voting rights effort for House Democrats added, “the problem we have with so many issues here in this Congress is that too many people want to see the damage done before they do anything.”

The debate over the 1965 Voting Rights Act was quickly reignited on a day that happened to be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. It was also a day that opened with the news that a powerful movie, depicting a crucial moment in the movement Dr. King led, earned a Oscar nomination for “Best Picture.”

In 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated the formula used to require states with a history of discrimination to get approval from the federal government before making any change to how elections are conducted. The court ruled the map that included nine states and certain counties and townships in six other states, was based on outdated data. Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act with a large and bipartisan majority in 2006, using data from 1972.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court’s 5-4 decision said, “our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions.”

Since then, civil rights groups have called on Congress to restore and update the formula. Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League said the ruling led to an “avalanche of voter suppression laws being introduced in many, many states.”

“Under the old law, if they were introduced in the South, they would have to be pre-cleared by the Justice Department before they took effect,” Morial told NBC News. Morial is a former mayor of New Orleans. “Now, we must muster up resources to file expensive lawsuits to challenge those laws if we think they violate the voting rights of any group of people,” he insisted.

Image: Audience members line up for a screening of the movie "Selma" at the Selma Walton Theatre in Selma
Audience members line up for a screening of the movie "Selma" at the Selma Walton Theatre in Selma, Alabama, on January 9, 2015. The movie is being screened for free to the residents of Selma, which was the scene of a major civil rights confrontation in March, 1965, in which police beat protesters who were marching to demand voting rights for African Americans JIM YOUNG / Reuters

The legislation that Democratic officials tell NBC News will be introduced Wednesday, is expected to mirror a bipartisan bill introduced last year, but never received a vote.

Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 last January along with Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Sen. Patrick Leahey, D-Vt. The bill established a new preclearance formula covering states and jurisdictions that committed five federal voting violations in the past 15 years. The legislation also proposed expanding the ability of federal courts to bail-in states and counties based not only on intentional violations, but for “results based” violations as well.

“I will reintroduce the VRAA this Congress because protecting the integrity of the ballot box is of the utmost importance,” Sensenbrenner told NBC News in a statement. “Discrimination and fraud have no place in our electoral process and I look forward to addressing the challenge of the Court to ensure the proper protections are in place,” Sensenbrenner continued. He made this statement before Goodlatte addressed the Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

Among other provisions, the bill included a controversial carve out protecting laws that require voters to show photo identification.

“It’s a big concern of mine and I’m first to say the bill was not perfect, but it was an effort to find common ground,” Morial admitted. “I would support that effort again.”

The public supports us and the question is will the representatives of the public listen to the public?

Last year’s bill had 177 cosponsors, including 11 Republicans.

Despite Goodlatte’s comments, Clyburn said “My strategy is no different than it was last time which is we put together a purely bipartisan bill.”

The Congressional Black Caucus plans to use the time between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the 50th Anniversary of the day President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Aug. 6, to increase public pressure. Rep. Clyburn said the theatrical release of “Selma,” which depicted the struggle and sacrifice of civil rights activist in the effort to force the Voting Rights Act, “ignited a flame” and “is having a tremendous impact.”

“There’s an old adage, one picture is worth a thousand words,” Clyburn said. “And no matter what you say to people, I believe the picture will have an impact,” he concluded.

The Congressional Black Caucus’s year-long effort to bring attention to the issue will be on display this weekend. That’s when about a dozen members of the caucus will travel to Ferguson, Mo. Ferguson was where an unarmed teenager was killed by a police officer. No charges were brought against the officer after a grand jury investigation, sparking widespread –and occasionally violent—protests across the country.

Butterfield says they will visit a church and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King. “Martin Luther King transformed America,” the caucus chair explained, “and people in Ferguson need to hear the Martin Luther King story in a different perspective.”

Butterfield said his caucus wants to “encourage and inspire them to continue their protest and movement and hopefully move into political empowerment in the city of Ferguson.” This includes, he says, getting more African American political officials elected in the city.

Marc Morial says while he wants to hear the President again address the Voting Rights Act in Tuesday’s State of the Union, the public doesn’t need convincing.

“The public supports us and the question is will the representatives of the public listen to the public?,” Morial asked.

When asked if amending the Voting Rights Act will be a priority in this session, the offices of House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, declined to comment.