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At tense congressional hearing, Democrats argue for expanding the Voting Rights Act

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
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WASHINGTON — Amid what experts are calling a surge in voter suppression measures, Democrats are sending a clear signal they want to restore portions of the Voting Rights Act that were removed by the Supreme Court in 2013, as well as expand the law’s reach.

Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, the Democratic chairwoman of the House Administration Committee’s subcommittee on elections, said during a hearing Thursday on Capitol Hill that she would like to see her own state added to the list of those that have to come under Justice Department oversight in how they run their elections — part of a process known as preclearance.

“I do believe [Ohio] should be a preclearance state,” she said.

Fudge, as chairwoman of the elections subcommittee — which was resurrected by Democrats this year after Republicans dissolved the panel in 2013 — has been holding a series of hearings, including eight outside Washington, D.C. The subcommittee is also planning to release a report before the end of this year outlining its recommendations.

An attendee holds a "Don't block the ballot box" sign during a news conference on the state of voting rights in the United States in Washington in June of 2019. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)
Attendees hold signs during a news conference in June on the state of voting rights in the United States. (Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Thursday’s hearing focused on national issues and led to a tense exchange between Fudge and the top Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois.

The broad aim of these hearings is to provide documentary and legally sufficient evidence in support of House Resolution 4, which was introduced earlier this year and which aims to provide a new legal standard for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to block state and local governments from enacting laws that are deemed discriminatory.

The Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013 removed the requirement for state or local governments with a history of racial discrimination to seek permission from the Justice Department before making “changes to state election law — however innocuous — until they have been precleared by federal authorities in Washington, D.C.”

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, is seen outside a Whip meeting with House Democrats in the Capitol on Jan. 17, 2019. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, at the Capitol in January. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

The court’s Shelby decision left open the possibility of renewing preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act for state and local election changes, but said that Congress needed to approve new formulas, based on modern data, to trigger the scrutiny of the federal government. Fudge’s hearings are seeking to provide that data.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, and as of 2008 it covered nine states in their entirety — most of them in the Deep South — along with counties and townships in five other states. Ohio was never under the act’s jurisdiction, though Fudge’s comments at the hearing indicate she believes it should be covered as well.

More than one witness who spoke to her subcommittee on Thursday at the hearing echoed Fudge’s opinion that problematic issues of voter discrimination exist not just in the Deep South.

Democrats and voting rights advocates say that since the 2013 Holder decision, states with Republican supermajorities in government — controlling the governorship and both chambers of the state legislature — have become increasingly aggressive in passing laws that make it harder to vote, especially for those who are poor or members of a racial minority.

“Modern-day voter suppression efforts are proliferating,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Clarke said that in Tennessee, which was not covered by preclearance under the Voting Rights Act in the past, she is “seeing extensive voter suppression efforts today.”

Other states appear to be experiencing similar problems.

Catherine E. Lhamon, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, said that since the Shelby decision, 23 states have enacted “newly restrictive statewide voter laws.”

Lhamon urged Congress to “restore or expand” the Voting Rights Act and said that “voting discrimination may arise in jurisdictions that do not have extensive histories of discrimination.”

Fudge showed an unusual amount of emotion Thursday at one point about two hours into the hearing to voice her exasperation at the developments of the last several years.

Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., speaks during the House Administration Committee hearing on Oversight of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington on Wednesday Sept. 18, 2019. (Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., at a House Administration Committee hearing in September. (Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

“I’m just trying to figure out: Why is it that they don’t want us to vote? I’m just asking,” said Fudge, who is African-American.

Davis, who is white, asked her: “Are you insinuating that I don’t want you to vote?”

Fudge replied: “I’m just asking the question: Why has it become so difficult for people of color, for Native Americans, for young people [to vote]?”

Davis asked to speak, but Fudge denied his request. She continued to expound on her frustration that over “the last 10 or 12 years” there has been a rash of new obstacles to voting erected in states around the country.

“I can trace my family back at least six generations in this country. I am as American as anybody in this room. I do not believe that people like me, who have helped build this nation, who have never done anything to hurt this country, should be made to go through all kinds of hoops to be able to do what the Constitution gives us a right to do,” she said.


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