WASHINGTON – House Democrats are launching an ambitious effort to repair the landmark voting rights law that was fractured by the Supreme Court in 2013, with leaders eying field hearings in North Carolina, Florida, Texas, Georgia and other states.
They are under tremendous pressure from their supporters to deliver.
Though Democrats will run the House next year, the Republican-controlled Senate is not likely to consider any legislation addressing the Voting Rights Act that gets passed in the House.
"States run elections. Let's keep it that way," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., likely the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have jurisdiction over the matter.
Fresh off their midterm election victories, however, Democrats want to show results _ and fast. They are planning as their agenda-setting legislation for 2019, a bill they've branded "HR 1."
It will package together a number of "good government" measures to increase transparency in rules governing campaign finance transactions, impose new ethical standards on federal officials and make it easier to vote.
Many Democrats want to restore a key provision of 1965 Voting Rights Act as part of that package, eager to capitalize on the voting controversies in gubernatorial elections in Georgia and Florida, where there were complaints of irregularities.
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., said this task could be accomplished "within the early weeks of the next Congress" if hearings are "done on a fairly aggressive schedule."
In June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down this provision of the law that required some or all of 15 states and jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination at the polls to get federal approval, or pre-clearance, before changing their voting rules.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., said she hopes her colleagues will pass a version of the voting rights bill, which reinstates the preclearance mandate and which she has already introduced, by March.
March 1965 is when civil rights icon John Lewis, a Georgia Democratic congressman, holds his annual gathering at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma _ the site where police brutally attacked voting rights demonstrators, including Lewis.
But Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the designated chairwoman of a new subcommittee on elections, told McClatchy on Wednesday she is planning field hearings around the country to build a "record" of election violations necessary to update the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted in 2013.
"I think that would give us sufficient time to do the work that we need to do, to create the record and do a report that would be satisfactory to the Supreme Court and still then give us time to make sure everything's in place before we go into a 2020 election," she said.
The Supreme Court, in its 5-4 decision in 2013, said that part of the Voting Rights Act must be updated to account for how times have changed since Congress first wrote the legislation, and urged lawmakers to revisit it.
Efforts to do so stalled in the Republican-controlled House with House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., declining to move bills that were crafted to address the court's concerns. Some had both Democratic and GOP support.
Goodlatte, whose state was one of the jurisdictions previously subjected to the preclearance requirement, was among the Republicans who cheered the Supreme Court decision as one that recognized states had come a long way since the days of the most blatant disenfranchisement of black voters.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., argued Republicans should care about better enforcement of elections, too, particularly given the current controversy in North Carolina's 9th Congressional District, where the campaign of Republican Mark Harris might have taken illegal steps to oust GOP incumbent Robert Pittenger in the primary.
North Carolina's latest predicament, Clyburn said, underscored why establishing a record of recent voting controversies, and then writing a new bill addressing the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act, was necessary, rather than just moving ahead with legislation like Sewell's that had been drafted prior to the midterms.
"I don't want to see a bill before we get a record," Clyburn told McClatchy in an interview Thursday.
"These bills that are in HR 1, they do different things, but none of that satisfies the Supreme Court in the (voting rights) decision, so you're looking at two different tracks," she said.
Putting a new preclearance formula in a bill with dozens of other measures could also jeopardize its chances. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made that clear.
"That's not going anywhere in the Senate," he told The Wall Street Journal CEO Council on Monday.