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Congress makes bipartisan bid to quash voters' rights

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is joining with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy to restore Justice Department authority over state election laws. Critics call the move racist.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is joining with Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy to restore Justice Department authority over state election laws. Critics call the move racist.Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Congressional attempts to “fix” the Voting Rights Act after the Supreme Court struck down an antiquated provision would extend the Justice Department’s reach while excluding “non-minorities” from protection.

Identical bills — H.R. 3899 and S. 1945 — have picked up bipartisan support, with 175 co-sponsors.

But instead of reforming the VRA, the legislation abets another administrative power grab, critics say.

Upset that the high court struck down “preclearance” rules granting the Justice Department special authority over election laws in 15 mostly Southern states, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced bills to expand the DOJ’s powers.

“The most alarming aspect involves subjective trigger mechanisms,” said Jay DeLancy, executive director of the Voter Integrity Project of North Carolina.

“The federal power grab would then start with five specified complaints being filed in a targeted state within a 15-year period,” he said. “Acting as both judge and jury, the DOJ would only need to sustain those complaints before awarding itself complete control over that state’s entire electoral process.”

Hans von Spakovsky, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the bills’ “stated purpose is to prevent racial discrimination.”

But cutting through the legislation’s legalistic verbiage, von Spakovsky asserts that Leahy-Sensenbrenner would “make race the predominant factor in the election process.”

Robert Knight, senior fellow for the American Civil Rights Union, agrees.

“(The bills) explicitly exclude ‘non-minorities’ from full protection of the Voting Rights Act … a clear violation of constitutional guarantees of equal treatment under the law,” Knight says.

Before the Supreme Court’s Shelby County (Ala.) v. Holder decision, the DOJ’s Voting Section had power to block state election laws, ranging from voter ID to minor procedural items such as moving a polling place from a school cafeteria to the school library, election attorney J. Christian Adams wrote in National Review.

Sensenbrenner denies any intention of trampling on states’ rights, but Adams said Sensenbrenner-Leahy would immediately return Texas, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana to “federal election receivership.” More states would likely follow, Adams said.

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