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Groups Plan to Press Lawmakers on Voting Rights

Groups Plan to Press Lawmakers on Voting Rights

By Alexis Simendinger - July 30, 2013

It won’t be easy persuading Congress to repair a provision of the Voting Rights Act that was nullified by the Supreme Court last month. That’s why “summer heat” is a public relations slogan a coalition of liberal advocacy groups broached Monday at the White House when they talked about how to make state and federal lawmakers sweat.

After meeting with President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, representatives of the groups told reporters their primary goal is passage of a bipartisan legislative response to the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to jettison a provision of the Voting Rights Act, which Congress last reauthorized in 2006.

The groups’ leaders said it was too early to describe what legislative remedy may emerge from negotiations with Capitol Hill.

In the court’s decision, Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy and Chief Justice John Roberts agreed to reject a key anti-discrimination formula determining which states must seek federal “pre-clearance” before changing voting requirements. The justices said the formula was “based on decades-old data and eradicated practices.”

The court challenged Congress to come up with contemporary data if it sought to replace the guts of the law. In a period of sharply divided government, many analysts said they do not expect Congress to tackle the matter anytime soon.

Holder took on Texas and Gov. Rick Perry last week, accusing the Lone Star State of “intentional” and “pervasive” racial discrimination in the state’s voting rights laws. He argued that federal protection under the Voting Rights Act is required, and he said the government seeks to make Texas come under the “pre-clearance” process using surviving provisions of the law.

“This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last,” Holder explained during a speech to the National Urban League’s annual conference. “Even as Congress considers updates to the Voting Rights Act in light of the court’s ruling, we plan in the meantime to fully utilize the law’s remaining sections to subject states to pre-clearance as necessary. My colleagues and I are determined to use every tool at our disposal to stand against such discrimination wherever it is found.”

At the White House on Monday, attendees said they discussed with Obama and Holder the targeting of Texas, noting that pending litigation tied to redistricting rendered the state “ground zero” in the federal government’s efforts to respond to the Supreme Court.

Obama told the visitors the federal government will defend Americans’ right to vote and their access to the means to execute their votes, using the “full array” of federal laws, including the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act, according to Barbara Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The president also told the attendees he awaits the final recommendations of his Commission on Election Administration, a group created by executive order in March to investigate reports of long lines and other irregularities on Election Day 2012, Arnwine added. Obama expects to receive the recommendations and findings in December, six months after the commission’s first public meeting.

In the meantime, the coalition of advocates -- representing African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and American Indians, among other voters -- wants to hunt down information from the public this summer about suspected violations of the Voting Rights Act, and to educate the public about what’s at stake following the high court’s ruling.

State and local officials, including mayors, are part of the coalition, and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told reporters in the White House driveway after the meeting that “more resources are going to be required in order to set the record for the kinds of discrimination that we believe is afoot in the United States of America.”

MSNBC host Al Sharpton told reporters he expects the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, planned for Aug. 24 and expected to include Obama, will showcase voting rights as an example of how the quest for equal rights in America continues in 2013.

Representatives of the NAACP said they aim to register 50,000 new voters in 2014 to participate in the midterm elections, and will work to turn them out.

“There is a wound in the Voting Rights Act, but it is far from dead,” Sharpton said. “We intend to aggressively fight to protect those rights in all communities.”

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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