GOP's new voting disgrace: If this won't change their mind, will anything?

Thad Cochran just won, thanks in part to black voters. Here's how he and his friends in the Senate are responding

By Jim Newell
Published June 30, 2014 3:43PM (UTC)
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Thad Cochran (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

During Wednesday's Senate hearing on a fix to the Voting Rights Act, a number of Republican senators, predictably if still disappointingly, questioned the need for such legislative maintenance.

The hearing convened by Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Pat Leahy came one year after the Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder decision. The decision threw out Section 4 of the landmark 1965 law, which set the formula to determine which states and localities with a history of racial discrimination required federal pre-clearance to change their voting laws. With the Section 4 formula eliminated, Section 5 -- actual enforcement of pre-clearance -- became toothless. The court's decision, however, did give Congress permission to update Section 4 and thus bring Section 5 back to life.

The chances of a VRA fix, or anything whatsoever, making its way through this Congress were always slim. But there was some hope, at least, when a bipartisan group of sponsors introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act earlier this year. The new formula, while not as beefy as the old one, would still cover Texas, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi and "require public notice for many voting rights changes across the country." If a body so polarized as this House of Representatives can produce a bipartisan piece of legislation fixing the VRA, why can't the still-terrible-but-less-terrible Senate?

So far, the Senate's fix, introduced by Leahy, has zero Republican co-sponsors. And if Wednesday's hearing was any indication, this is not because of some clerical oversight in which friendly Republicans forgot to sign their name. They're not interested in it. From the Washington Post:

Republicans at the hearing echoed the five justices who struck down part of the act last June, saying that the Section 4 formulas used to decide which states the Justice Department would monitor for discrimination were outdated. "It should apply to Minnesota, it should apply to Vermont, it should apply to the entire country,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said, not just the Southern states originally targeted by the act. “It imposes a presumption on guilt that is not born out by the evidence.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) told the committee that the Voting Rights Act works well enough without Section 4. "No one should doubt that voter discrimination is less widespread than it was in the 1960s. The current voting rights act is strongly enforced and is protecting the rights of all Americans to vote.”

Grassley's line, that what still remains of the VRA is strong enough, has been and likely will continue to be the go-to excuse for Republican senators to ignore the issue. But it's not true. The law's primary mechanism for challenging discriminatory voting laws now is Section 2, which allows for lawsuits. But those lawsuits can only come after the fact, and rack up a great deal of legal costs, after the damage has already been done. Having the Justice Department review dicey laws at the outset is the more sound approach for those who are genuinely concerned about the infringement of voting rights.

There's another curious thing about Grassley and Cornyn's stubborn opposition to a fix. Both senators donated to the campaign of their old friend Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi. As you, dear reader, are well aware, the main reason Cochran's not a lame duck this week is because Mississippi Democrats, mostly African-Americans, turned out in a Republican runoff to save him from challenger Chris McDaniel. And they did so in the face of a questionable Tea Party "poll watching" apparatus. McDaniel still refuses to concede, because there's just got to be something illegal about high numbers of African-Americans turning out to vote for the other guy in a Republican primary. His campaign is still considering launching a legal challenge to the validity of Cochran's victory.

That Cochran survived thanks to African-Americans voters, and McDaniel and his challengers somehow think that delegitimizes if not invalidates Cochran's win, should give Grassley and Cornyn an opportunity to reflect on the need to restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act. As for Cochran himself? Well, the Voting Rights Amendment Act is still looking for that first Republican co-sponsor in the Senate. When should we expect to see you put your name on it? How about right now. Does "right now" work for you?

Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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