Democrats push to make voting rights a 2020 issue

WASHINGTON — With an eye toward making the reinstatement of the 1965 Voting Rights Act an issue in the 2020 election, Democrats are pushing ambitious new legislation they hope will lay the groundwork for increased voter participation.

House Democrats plan to pass House Resolution 1 this week, a mammoth proposal with three main planks: campaign finance, ethics and voting rights. But even if the measure succeeds, the Republican-controlled Senate is not expected to take it up for a vote.

HR 1’s voting rights components — which aim to increase voter registration and access to the polls — have so far received more attention than its other provisions, but the details of the bill have less to do with reinstating the VRA than a subsequent bill, HR 4, which was introduced last week.

In its 2013 decisionin Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, and HR 4 aims to lay the foundation for a new VRA standard that will withstand legal challenges once it becomes law.

“Getting the Voting Rights Act updated and strengthened again is key,” said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., a key proponent of HR 4, which was introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

HR 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, will give the Democrats a vehicle to conduct field hearings and hear expert testimony over the next several months to amass what Sarbanes called a “strong, robust record” for why the VRA needs to be reinstated after Shelby.

The Shelby decision removed the requirement for state or local governments with a history of racial discrimination to seek permission from the Justice Department before making “all changes to state election law — however innocuous — until they have been pre-cleared by federal authorities in Washington, D. C.”

Chief Justice Roberts wrote in a 5-4 majority opinion that “things have changed dramatically” since the 1965 passage of the VRA, and that “problems remain in these States and others, but there is no denying that, due to the Voting Rights Act, our Nation has made great strides.” Nine states were covered by the VRA in 1965, and counties and townships in five other states came under the act in its subsequent renewals.

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Voting Rights Act marches 1960s and 50th anniversary with Obama
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Voting Rights Act marches 1960s and 50th anniversary with Obama
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Bobby Simmons, an African-American young man with 'VOTE' on forehead painted with zinc oxide sun tan lotion during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Speakers platform - 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March Front row, left: Author James Baldwin, Front row, 2nd from left, Selma March strategist, Bayard Rustin,Front row, 3rd from left (with hat), A. Philip Randolph (founder of both the March on Washington Movement and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) - On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 14: Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in between television interviews on Feb. 14, 2015. Rep. Lewis was beaten by police on the bridge on 'Bloody Sunday' 50 years ago on March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: At the head of the march, nuns, priests and civil rights leaders leave from the City of St. Jude school grounds (L-R Rev. Dominic T. 'Dom' Orsini, priest with eye patch (half view), Rev. Arthur Matott, John Lewis (head of SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Andrew Young, Sister Mary Leoline and Dr. Theodore Gill) on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
Civil rights demonstrators, led by Dr Martin Luther King (5th R), civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy (5th L), John Lewis (3rd L) and other civil and religious leaders, make their way from Selma to Montgomery on March 22, 1965 in Alabama, on the third leg of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights ended three weeks and represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement. The first march took place on March 07, 1965 ('Bloody Sunday') when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police. (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
View of American religious and Civil Rights leaders John Lewis (in vest) and Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) and his wife, Coretta Scott King (1927 - 2006), on the podium before the Selma to Montogomery March rally on the steps on the Alabama State Capitol, Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965. Also visible is union leader A Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979) (seated at left). The Confederate and Alabama flags fly over the Capitol. (Photo by Charles Shaw/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (R), one of the original marchers, the Reverend Al Sharpton (2nd R), First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and US Representative John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The event commemorates Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans, clashed with police on the bridge. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (7L), First Lady Michelle Obama (5L), former US President George W. Bush (5R), Laura Bush (6R), and US Representative John Lewis (6L), Democrat of Georgia and one of the original marchers, lead a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. US President Barack Obama rallied a new generation of Americans to the spirit of the civil rights struggle, warning their march for freedom 'is not yet finished.' In a forceful speech in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the brutal repression of a peaceful protest, America's first black president denounced new attempts to restrict voting rights. AFP PHOTO/ SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (2nd-R), one of the original marchers, First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and US Representative John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The event commemorates Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans, clashed with police on the bridge. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama hugs US Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, one of the original marchers at Selma, during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015. Obama declared Saturday on the 50th anniversary of a savagely repressed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that it was a global inspiration for those fighting for freedom. 'From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom,' he said. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
People listen during take photos at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march on Saturday by condemning new attempts to restrict voting rights and demanding their protection be renewed. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march on Saturday by condemning new attempts to restrict voting rights and demanding their protection be renewed. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A large group including US President Barack Obama cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama declared Saturday on the 50th anniversary of a savagely repressed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that it was a global inspiration for those fighting for freedom. 'From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom,' he said. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: (L-R) Former first lady Laura Bush, first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. president Barack Obama, U.S. Rep John Lewis (D-GA) and former U.S. president George W. Bush pray during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama and the first family are in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The motorcade of US President Barack Obama arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama and the first family are in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet wellwishers after arriving on Air Force One at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Sasha Obama (L), Malia Obama (2nd L), and their grandmother, Marian Robinson (C), walk away from US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama after arriving on Air Force One at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: People wait to hear U.S. president Barack Obama speak in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gets out of an SUV as he walks to board Air Force One prior to departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US President George W. Bush arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of US Secret Service's Counter Assault Team walks on the North lawn of the White House in Washington, DC before US President Barack Obama departure to Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015. The US Secret Service locked down the White House press room Saturday after a loud noise was heard as reporters gathered to await Obama's departure for Selma, Alabama, a pool report said. The Washington fire department reported a fire at a food cart near the White House and that its units had extinguished it. It was unclear if the fire was the source of the noise. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers block Broad Street near the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is seen during sunset on March 6, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. The march from Selma to Montgomery, which US President Barack Obama will commemorate Saturday in the southern state of Alabama, was part of the plight to end voting discrimination against African Americans a half century ago. Obama will deliver remarks at Selma's famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, where some 600 peaceful voting rights activists were attacked as they marched on March 7, 1965, a day which became known as 'Bloody Sunday.' AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (L) look on during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. US President Barack Obama rallied a new generation of Americans to the spirit of the civil rights struggle, warning their march for freedom 'is not yet finished.' In a forceful speech in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the brutal repression of a peaceful protest, America's first black president denounced new attempts to restrict voting rights. AFP PHOTO/ SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
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The court’s Shelby decision left open the possibility of renewal of what is known under the VRA as “pre-clearance” for state and local election changes, but said that Congress needed to approve new formulas to trigger the scrutiny of the federal government.

“Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions,” Roberts wrote.

Democrats argue that, in the wake of the court’s decision, Republicans moved quickly to erect election laws that made it harder to vote. These changes were usually made in the name of preventing voter fraud, but often had a disproportionate impact on minority voters and the poor.

“Since the Shelby decision, a lot of jurisdictions across the country seem to have snapped back to an earlier time where they’re putting in place these measures that make it harder to vote,” Sarbanes said.

Carol Anderson’s 2018 book “One Person, No Vote” documented the impact of election law changes in the 2016 election and pushed the idea that the decline in African-American participation in the Rust Belt states that decided the election was due to Republicans culling the voter rolls and erecting obstacles to voting. The Democrats 2016 presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, talked about these impacts this past weekend.

“I was the first person who ran for president without the protection of the Voting Rights Act and I will tell you, it makes a really big difference,” Clinton said Sunday in Selma, Alabama at a commemoration of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march.

In 2018, the Georgia gubernatorial election between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams crystallized concerns about voter suppression. Kemp, then Georgia’s secretary of state, oversaw the election he was running in, raising questions about a conflict of interest.

Kemp had a long record of making openly partisan statements of alarm about increases in Democratic voter registration numbers, and had removed millions of voters under the pretense of keeping them up to date.

Following her defeat, Abrams founded a group called Fair Fight Action and filed lawsuits that argue Kemp erected an “obstacle course” for voters.

While Republicans have often raised concerns about voter fraud in recent years, there have been no widespread cases of that impacted an election until Republicans in North Carolina were caught trying to steal a congressional election in the state’s ninth district.

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Republican Mark Harris
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Republican Mark Harris
Mark Harris speaks to the media during a news conference in Matthews, N.C., Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. Harris is leading Dan McCready for the 9th congressional district in a race that is still too close to call. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, center, speaks as President Donald Trump, left, and Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., right, listen during a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
FILE- In this Nov. 7, 2018, file photo Mark Harris speaks to the media during a news conference in Matthews, N.C. North Carolina election officials agreed Friday, Nov. 30, to hold a public hearing into alleged “numerous irregularities” and “concerted fraudulent activities” involving traditional mail-in absentee ballots in the 9th Congressional District, apparently in two rural counties. Republican Harris leads Democrat Dan McCready by 905 votes from nearly 283,000 cast in all or parts of eight south-central counties reaching from Charlotte to near Fayetteville. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton, File)
North Carolina 9th district Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, left, with his wife Beth, claims victory in his congressional race in Monroe, N.C., Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Rep. Mark Harris, R-N.C., after arriving at Charlotte Douglas International Airport for a campaign rally, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, right, greets another worker during a Habitat For Humanity building event in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Harris is running against democrat Dan McCready in the 9th Congressional District. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC, right, and Republican congressional candidate Mark Harris, left, greet supporters during a campaign rally in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Oct. 26, 2018. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Republican Senate candidate Mark Harris smiles as he talks to a voter as he makes phone bank calls from his headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, May 5, 2014. The struggle for control of the Republican Party gets an early voter test in North Carolina, where GOP leaders Mitt Romney and Rand Paul push candidates competing against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the November midterm elections. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Republican senatorial candidates from left, Greg Brannon, Heather Grant, Mark Harris and Thom Tillis participate during a televised debate at UNC-TV in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Monday, April 28, 2014. (AP Photo/ Pool)
Pastor Mark Harris, right, of Charlotte, North Carolina talks with Jahnmaud O. Lane during an election party at the North Raleigh Hilton on Tuesday, May 8, 2012. (Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images)
ASHEVILLE, NC - NOVEMBER 07: Rep. Mark Harris attends the Billy Graham birthday party on November 7, 2013 in Asheville, United States. (Photo by Alicia Funderburk/Getty Images)
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Ironically, the North Carolina case is now being used by Republicans to argue that measures that Democrats decry as suppressing the vote are in fact needed to prevent cheating.

“For years and years, every Republican who dared to call for commonsense safeguards for Americans' ballots was demonized by Democrats and their allies,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor last week. “We were hit with left-wing talking points insisting that voter fraud wasn't real.”

“Now that an incident of very real voter fraud has become national news and the Republican candidate seems — seems — to have benefited, these long-standing Democratic talking points have been really quiet,” McConnell said. “Haven't heard much lately from the Democrats about how fraud never happens.”

Sarbanes said that McConnell is conflating fraud by political operatives to change an election with fraud by voters at the polls. The latter, voter fraud, is the justification Republicans often use for stricter laws and rules, and that was not what happened in North Carolina, Sarbanes said.

The prospects for reinstating the VRA’s preclearance requirement before the 2020 election look slim since Republicans control the Senate and the White House. But Sarbanes said that the heightened awareness of this issue could make this a potent election year issue in 2020.

“If McConnell doesn’t take up any of these important reforms, I think it’s fair to say to the public, ‘Look, you gave the Democrats the gavel in the House in 2018, and we’ve shown you that we’re committed to make these changes. If you’re not getting satisfaction on that on the Senate side, maybe you should give the gavel to a new set of leaders and a new party on the Senate side,” Sarbanes said. “Whether it results consequentially in a legislative achievement … or the energy it produces gets converted into electoral momentum that becomes part of the 2020 election narrative … remains to be seen.”

“But either way,” he said, “it will create momentum.”

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