Republicans push back against federal approval for changes in state voting laws

By: - June 29, 2021 4:42 pm

Voters casting ballots. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—Republicans during a U.S. House Judiciary panel hearing on Tuesday argued that a bill that would reinstate a preclearance section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is unnecessary because there is no discrimination in voting.

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Mike Johnson, (R-La.), said that the legislation is not needed and that the federal government should not be telling states how to run their electoral processes.

He added that recently voting bills passed by Republicans in Georgia and Florida are meant to “enhance election integrity and increase the public’s waning confidence in our election process.”

“It is outrageous to see the federal government fighting back against these common sense reforms, such as the latest lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice against Georgia over its election law,” Johnson said. The Justice Department announced last week that the agency is suing Georgia in an attempt to overturn the state’s sweeping elections law passed in March.

The comments from the GOP came as Democrats again attempt some type of federal action on elections laws, after a massive legislative package by Democrats known as H.R. 1 was blocked in the U.S. Senate by Republicans. Democrats say the GOP state laws broadly disenfranchise many voters, including those of color, rural residents and people with disabilities.

Rep. Steve Cohen, the Tennessee Democrat who held the House hearing as the chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, contended it is necessary for Congress to pass H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

The measure would put back in place preclearance requirements. Lewis was a member of Congress from Georgia and a leader in the civil rights movement.

“As we approach the first anniversary of John’s passing, Congress must rededicate ourselves to protecting this most fundamental right at a time when it is yet under threat, including in his home state of Georgia,” Cohen said in his opening statement.

The bill, which has not been reintroduced this Congress, would mandate that states and localities with a history of implementing discriminatory voting practices get federal approval before making changes to voting laws.

Those states have included Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas, due to their history of using poll taxes, literacy tests and racial violence to suppress Black and minority voters.

Cohen expressed concern over the introductions of 389 bills with restrictive voting provisions across 48 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Currently, 22 bills have been enacted, with 61 bills in 18 states pending.

Cohen in particular pointed to the voting law enacted in Georgia because it limits the number of ballot boxes for voters, restricts mail-in voting and bans the distribution of food and water by groups to voters waiting in long lines.

One of the witnesses, Helen Butler from Georgia, said the recent voting law is a backlash against the 2020 presidential election, in which President Joe Biden won her state. Democrats also won two U.S. Senate runoff elections earlier this year in Georgia.

Butler is the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, which is made up of representatives from civil rights, human rights, peace and justice organizations in the Peach State. The People’s Agenda was founded by the late Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a leader in the civil rights movement.

“Instead of welcoming the increasing diversity of Georgia’s electorate and respecting the votes cast by Black voters and other voters of color, Georgia’s conservative legislators’ immediate response was to introduce a host of voter suppression bills in both the Georgia House and Senate during the 2021 legislative session,” Butler said.

She added that the preclearance section is needed to ensure Black and other voters of color have equal access to the ballot box.

That preclearance formula was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2013 case, Shelby County v. Holder. 

John G. Roberts, Jr., Chief Justice of the United States. Credits: U.S. Supreme Court website.

The Republican argument during Tuesday’s hearing echoed Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion in the case, where he argued that voter suppression is not as prevalent today as it was in the 1960s and 1970s and “there is no longer such disparity.”

After that case, the Supreme Court instructed Congress to draft a new process to determine how the Voting Rights Act would monitor cities, counties and states based on current data, which Democrats are hoping to institute with H.R. 4.

However, H.R. 4 does not undo any voting laws passed in those states with a history of enacting laws to suppress voters of color.

H.R. 1 would undo some laws in Florida, Georgia and Texas, as well as tackle dark money in campaigns and election security.

One of the witnesses, Maureen Riordan, litigation counsel for the Public Interest Legal Foundation, agreed with the GOP arguments.

The foundation, a conservative group based in Indiana, pushes to purge voter rolls and focuses on voter fraud. Its president, J. Christian Adams, was tapped by former President Donald Trump to serve on his Election Integrity Commission in response to Trump’s baseless claim that there were 5 million illegal votes cast in the 2016 presidential election.

“There is no rampant discrimination in voting,” Riordan said.

But the vice chairwoman of the Judiciary panel, Rep. Deborah Ross, (D-N.C.), said that after the Supreme Court struck down the preclearance section of the Voting Rights Act, her own state passed a voting law that disenfranchised African American voters. She said that while the courts overturned the law, it took three years for that litigation to end.

“We need to stop voter suppression before it happens, not years afterwards,” she said. “Disenfranchised Americans cannot wait years for their rights to be restored.”

Rep. Michelle Fischbach, (R-Minn.), asked Riordan what would happen if the Biden administration is successful in its lawsuit against Georgia’s new voting law.

Riordan said that the Justice Department has asked for a preliminary injunction and if that is granted, then it will prevent the new law from going into effect. She added that if the DOJ won the case, then the new law would be quashed.

“It sounds to me like a real invasion of the federal government into state elections,” Fischbach said.

Rep. Cori Bush, (D-Mo.), disputed Republicans’ argument that the federal government should not interfere in state and local elections.

Bush said that Congress should be concerned by the several Republican-controlled states that “have gone out of their way, time and time again, to suppress Black voters.”

“Some of our colleagues can sit here and use coded language about states rights and the federal government, or we can call it what it is,” she said.

“This is a conversation about one party’s intent and their ongoing white supremacist attempts to suppress the power of Black, brown, indigenous and other marginalized voters.”

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana Figueroa is a reporter at the States Newsroom, in the Washington, D.C, bureau.

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