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Conservatives should embrace Jim Sensenbrenner’s efforts to update the Voting Rights Act

Armstrong Williams | 6/12/2014, 4:30 p.m.
Armstrong Williams

First enacted in 1965, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) prohibited discriminatory voting practices that had been used to deny people, especially people of color, their constitutional right to vote. This landmark law had wide bipartisan support and has been seen by historians as one of the most important pieces of legislation ever passed by the Congress.

Republicans have had a long history of protecting voting rights. In 1965, only one Senate Republican and only 20 House Republicans opposed the conference report that was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Thirty voted for it in the Senate, and 111 voted for it in the House, but those votes proved to be crucially important to get the bill over the top.

In 2006, no Senate Republican voted against the 25–year extension and only 33 House Republicans voted no. Keep in mind, that in 2006, Republicans were in control of the House, the Senate and the White House. It was Republican leadership that made the extension possible. You can make the case that without the Republican Party, voting rights would have never been protected in this country.

The heart of the VRA is Section 5, which requires covered jurisdictions to submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal district court in D.C. for a determination of whether that change is discriminatory before the change goes into effect. This process is known as “preclearance.”

On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the coverage formula in Section 4(b) of the VRA was unconstitutional. While the court did not invalidate the preclearance mechanism in the VRA, it effectively halted its use by invalidating the part of the law that determined which places were subject to the preclearance obligation.

The Supreme Court did not find that the underlying law was unconstitutionals nor did it find that the practice of preclearing certain jurisdictions to be unconstitutional. It did find that the formula used to judge which states needed the pre-clearing process and which states did not had to be updated.

That’s not surprising, because things change, especially over the span of five decades. Republicans should understand that the Supreme Court is not calling for the elimination of the VRA. It is calling for it to be updated. And that is what Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is trying to do with his bipartisan legislation.

As the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Sensenbrenner knows this issue inside and out. And he knows that updating this law will not only protect the American people’s right to vote, but that it will also protect the reputation of the Republican Party as a defender of civil rights in this country.

In other words, updating this law is not only good policy—it is also good politics.

So why should conservatives care about this? Indeed, some conservatives argue that we should just allow the Supreme Court’s decision to stand and leave the VRA unenforceable. But if Republicans and conservatives get blamed for leaving the VRA toothless or for dragging their heels on an update, they leave themselves politically vulnerable.

How can African-American voters have any faith in the Republican Party if the party refuses to take steps to protect their right to vote? How can Republicans have a conversation with Hispanic voters if they believe that the GOP doesn’t taking voting rights seriously?

Republicans have already taken it on the chin with accusations from the left that they are trying to suppress the Black vote. Passing the VRA reauthorization takes a key argument away from these partisans.

There is no political risk to updating the VRA. The law enjoys wide and deep support from all sectors of American society. Updating the VRA makes plenty of sense. Republicans should do it, and do it soon.

Armstrong Williams is the author of the brand-new book “Reawakening Virtues.” Read more on RightSideWire.com. Come join the discussion live 4-5 p.m. EST at www.livestream.com/armstrongwilliams or tune in 4-5 p.m. EST on S.C. WGCV, Sirius/XM Power 110, 6-7 p.m. and 5-6 a.m. EST. Become a fan on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.