House Dems Want Voting Rights Act Beefed Up
House Democrats on Thursday renewed their push for the restoration of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court two years ago, arguing that Americans’ anger over polarizing symbols such as the Confederate flag should motivate Republicans to take “substantive action” to protect minority voting rights.
The newest effort to put pressure on Speaker John Boehner to bring a voting rights bill to the floor came after a contentious battle in the lower chamber last week when Republicans pulled a Department of Interior spending bill amid disagreements within their own caucus on whether to allow the display and sale of the Confederate flag on federal sites.
“I call upon the speaker and the Republican majority to bring a voting rights bill to the floor now,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at a news conference Thursday, flanked by more than a dozen other Democratic members and chairs of the congressional caucuses representing African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians/Pacific Islanders.
Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the assistant minority leader, told reporters that Democratic members are willing to sit down with Boehner to discuss and debate their differences.
The Confederate flag was taken down from the South Carolina State Capitol the day after the spending bill was pulled, and Republicans feared the unfavorable optics of voting on amendments that rolled back Democratic modifications to the bill that would have banned the flag at federal cemeteries and official National Park Service shops.
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) said it was time to move the fight beyond polarizing symbols like the Confederate flag, and instead focus on “substantive action” to fully restore the Voting Rights Act.
“How ironic that we are fighting the battle over symbols and images of disenfranchisement,” Sanchez said. “We should be focused on acting on ways to include people in [voter] participation.”
Democrats urged further protections for vulnerable voters including students, minorities, and low-income Americans. Republican legislatures nationwide have enacted laws requiring voters to present a valid form of identification before voting, initiatives that Democrats say directly disenfranchise voters.
“We must have an effective preclearance section to prevent discriminatory election laws from being enacted,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, referring to the long-standing practice of federal vetting of voting laws in some states, the formula for which the court invalidated in 2013.
Efforts to remove the Confederate flag from government-owned property were triggered following the shooting deaths of nine African-Americans in a black church last month. The shooter, Dylann Roof, was pictured with the flag and other symbols associated with white supremacy.
“There has been an opportunity for the Republican majority not just to send a condolence card or show up at a service, but to translate that into action,” Pelosi said in an effort to move the conversation away from the flag and toward voting rights.
The issue has been gaining steam on the 2016 campaign trail as well. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton called on Congress to renew the provision of the Voting Rights Act that was “gutted” by the Supreme Court, and attacked Republican candidates by name for their “crusade” of voter ID laws that “disempower and disenfranchise” certain groups of voters.
Republicans say voter ID laws bolster the integrity of the ballot box by reducing fraud and argue that most Americans support that position.
In response to last week’s scramble on the House floor over the Interior Department spending bill, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest accused Republicans of “race-baiting.”
“A sizable number of House Republicans are eager to protect the status of the Confederate flag on National Park Service grounds,” Earnest said.
“I would say there’s no denying the stark difference in the agenda that’s advanced by Republicans … and values that are espoused by Democrats,” he added, hinting at 2016 electoral implications for the GOP