Bill offered in U.S. Congress to modernize Voting Rights Act

Reuters
A man casts his vote for the New York Mayoral Election at the Congregation Mount Sinai in New York
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A man casts his vote for the New York Mayoral Election at the Congregation Mount Sinai in New York November …

By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Voting Rights Act of 1965 would be modernized under a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Congress on Thursday in response to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that gutted a core part of the landmark law.

The legislation would provide a new formula to determine if any state or locality - not just those with a history of racial discrimination - should be required to obtain prior federal approval to changes in its election rules.

A top Republican, Representative Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, joined two Democrats - Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Representative John Conyers of Michigan - to take the lead in drafting the measure.

Backers predicted congressional passage, possibly before November elections.

But it was unclear when the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-led House of Representatives, which have clashed on most issues in recent years, would take it up.

The measure is the result of a divided U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a centerpiece of the U.S. civil rights movement.

The high court struck down the requirement that nine states, mostly in the South, obtain prior federal approval because of their history of racial discrimination.

The court declared that Congress, in updating the law in 2006, had used outdated facts in deciding that these states must continue to get federal pre-clearance for election law changes.

In doing so, the court challenged Congress to come up with a replacement plan to protect minority voters where discrimination persists rather than target former slaveholding southern states.

Under the Voting Rights Act Amendment of 2014, states would need prior federal approval to change election laws if they had five or more violations of federal law in the previous 15 years.

A jurisdiction would need federal approval if it had three or more violations in the previous 15 years or has had one violation and "persistent and extremely low minority voter turnout."

The bill was introduced in the House and Senate.

"Our sole focus throughout this entire process was to ensure that no American would be denied his or her constitutional right to vote because of discrimination on the basis of race or color," Leahy said.

"We believe that this is a strong bipartisan bill that accomplishes this goal and that every member of Congress can support," Leahy added.

Said Sensenbrenner, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, "The modernized VRA (Voting Rights Act) is constitutional and bipartisan."

In addition to Leahy and Conyers, other Democratic sponsors include: Assistant Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, Senator Chris Coons of Delaware and Representative John Lewis of Georgia, who a half century ago was a leader in the civil rights movement.

In addition to Sensenbrenner, other Republican sponsors include: Representatives Spenser Bachus of Alabama, Sean Duffy of Wisconsin and Steve Chabot of Ohio.

(Additional reporting by Laurence Hurley; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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