Less than a month after the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, the Senate Judiciary Committee met today to begin a series of hearings designed to rebuild what Rep. John Lewis called “the heart and soul” of the legislation.
Lewis, D-Ga., Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., led the congressional charge to update the Voting Rights Act, calling on Congress, in Leahy’s words, to “work together as a body – not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans – to ensure that we protect against racial discrimination in voting.”
In June, the Supreme Court struck down section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that the formula used to determine which states must obtain federal permission before changing any voting laws is unconstitutional and outdated, meaning more than a dozen states no longer need permission to change voting laws.
“The day of the Supreme Court decision broke my heart; it made me want to cry,” said Lewis, a civil rights icon who testified before the Senate c0mmittee. “I felt like saying, “Come, come and walk in the shoes of people who tried to register, tried to vote, but did not live to see the passage of the Voting Rights Act.’”
Lewis’ testimony continued as he recounted the height of the civil rights movement.
“I remember this period, and these struggles, like it was yesterday,” he said. “We have made progress. We have come a great distance, but the deliberate, systematic attempt to make it harder and more difficult for many people to participate in the democratic process still exists to this very day.”
Sensenbrenner, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee when Congress last moved to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006, provided testimony critical of the Supreme Court decision.
“The court substantially disregarded years and years of the extensive work of the legislative branch and substituted their own judgment,” Sensenbrenner said.
Though the majority of lawmakers present felt the court’s decision to strike Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act left the legislation gutted and vulnerable, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was argued that the law may still be strong enough to stand on its own.
Grassley said section 2, which was left intact, prohibits discriminatory voting practices throughout the United States, not just the dozen-or-so states affected by section 5.
He also criticized Congress’ past efforts, most recently in 2006, cautioning Congress to be mindful of overreaching, and to “show great respect for the limitations of its power against state authority.”
Ultimately, no concrete plan of action emerged from the hearing. Instead, a myriad of suggestions were brought to the floor, including reexamining current voter information, minimizing long voting lines, and focusing more on smaller jurisdictions that might be more susceptible to voter discrimination.
The Senate will continue its hearings after the August recess, and the House Judiciary Committee will hold its first hearing on the Voting Rights Act Thursday.