Civil-rights advocates are selling a bill amending the Voting Rights Act as a wholly bipartisan fix and saying it will pass this year, despite the partisan divide over voter-ID laws and other voting-rights issues.
"It will pass this Congress," said Scott Simpson, spokesman for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which has advocated for an update to the law. "If anything can pass this Congress, it's this."
The bill would revive a portion of the Voting Rights Act that gives the Justice Department final say on all changes to elections — from voter-ID laws to polling place relocations — in states with a history of discrimination.
The provision, known as the "preclearance" requirement, was included in the Voting Rights Act in 1965, but the Supreme Court in June 2013 struck down its outdated method of choosing which states would be placed under that requirement. Rather than choosing states based on discrimination in the 1960s, the new formula would be based on voting-rights restrictions in the last 15 years, and would be updated after every election.
The bill's backers have made a concerted effort to present it as a bipartisan solution. Reps. Scott Peters, D-Calif., and Chris Gibson, R-N.Y., paired up to become cosponsors on Feb. 6. Other cosponsors include the House's most conservative and liberal lawmakers, according to National Journal's 2013 rankings: Reps. Steve Chabot of Ohio and Mike Honda of California, respectively.
The efforts to make the bill transparently bipartisan may be necessary, considering the bitter divide over the preclearance requirement and voter-ID laws. The preclearance requirement applied largely to conservative states — 13 of the 15 states affected had Republican governors at the time of the Supreme Court ruling. And Democrats have argued that ID requirements are meant to suppress the vote of minorities, the poor, and the elderly.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a January interview with MSNBC that many states' voter-ID requirements are passed by Republicans "for partisan advantage."
Reactions to the new preclearance formula have varied widely. Holder said he did not think the bill went far enough, and was concerned that Justice Department objections to voter-ID laws would not count as violations against states.
Some conservatives, meanwhile, think the bill goes too far, despite the concessions made by civil-rights activists. Heritage Foundation senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky, a former Justice Department counsel under George W. Bush, said the preclearance requirement should be done away with entirely because the standards for discrimination have changed so drastically since the 1960s.
"I think it's great it's fewer states," von Spakovsky said, "but it shouldn't be any."
But the bill's sponsors have attempted to thread the needle between those who support the preclearance requirement and those who don't by allowing states to be added or removed from the requirement, said Deborah Vagins, senior legislative counsel for the ACLU. That way, those who want to get their state out of the requirement can do so, and states with records of discrimination will be covered.
Both sides will have to cede a few points, Vagins said. The ACLU would rather see more states under the preclearance requirement — to start, only Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas would be affected — but four states is better than none, she said. And another four — New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia — would each be only one violation away.
They also like that the bill includes a provision requiring all 50 states to notify the public of any election changes, even if they don't have to pass them through the Justice Department for approval, Vagins said.
And although the bill has no Republican sponsors from states that would be put under the preclearance requirement, the Leadership Conference does not expect much opposition from those states, Simpson said. Because states can more easily work their way out of the preclearance requirement, it doesn't even need to be thought of as a bad thing, he said.
"That's an outmoded way of thinking," Simpson said. "It's old VRA."