WaPo Suggests Congress Can Solve Voter Suppression During Shutdown

Blog ››› ››› SERGIO MUNOZ

The Washington Post blithely suggested that Congress should "rewrite" the Voting Rights Act (VRA) rather than allow the Department of Justice to hold states accountable for voter suppression in federal court, seemingly oblivious to the government shutdown caused by the historic obstructionism of the GOP-controlled House of Representatives.

Although the conservative wing of the Supreme Court recently gutted significant protections for the right to vote in last summer's infamous Shelby County v. Holder, judges still have authority under the VRA to enjoin voter suppression after a discriminatory law is enacted. The Department of Justice is suing the states of Texas and North Carolina under these Section 2 powers, and if a court finds that the voter suppression attempted in either of these states was done with the intent to discriminate on the basis of race, Section 3 of the VRA could require these states to once again "pre-clear" their election changes.

In the middle of a Republican-caused government shutdown due to opposition to the Affordable Care Act, however, the Post opined that rather than sue states in court for clear violations of the VRA, it would be "easier and fairer" for Congress to "rewrite" those pre-clearance sections that Shelby County struck down. From the editorial:

EVER SINCE the Supreme Court gutted a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Attorney General Eric H. Holder's Justice Department has been trying to patch it, using the sections of the law that the court left in place to reconstitute the checks on discrimination that had existed for decades. The Justice Department's latest move, involving a challenge to odious new voting restrictions in North Carolina, demonstrates that Mr. Holder is committed to the effort. It also demonstrates why Congress, not the Obama administration, should be the branch of government offering the primary response to the court's ruling.


With a series of wins in cases such as North Carolina's, the Justice Department could reestablish the pre-clearance requirement in many places where it used to apply. The easier and fairer way to revive pre-clearance, however, would be for Congress to rewrite the formula for which places should be covered. The Supreme Court left lawmakers that latitude, and large bipartisan majorities in Congress historically have supported pre-clearance. If lawmakers want to get back to doing something productive, resuscitating the Voting Rights Act would be a good place to start.

Considering DOJ's obligations under the VRA, the Post's objection to legally holding states accountable for voter suppression would have been unnecessarily deferential to the legislative branch in any context. In the reality of a government shutdown, the Post's call that "[i]f lawmakers want to get back to doing something productive, resuscitating the Voting Rights Act would be a good place to start" is downright bizarre.

Under Republican control, the House of Representatives was already historically unproductive due to its ideological opposition to long-standing New Deal and Great Society law. Now that Republicans have shuttered the gates on a congressional session that had already become a legislative graveyard, DOJ's decision to not count on the House's ability to fix the VRA looks prescient.

Federal courts have already found that Texas' voter suppression efforts violated the VRA, and in the wake of Shelby County, North Carolina managed to pass restrictions on the right to vote that are widely considered to be just as patently illegal. But the Post asserts that DOJ should abandon these strong cases because the "easier and fairer" way to have the voter suppression of incorrigible states checked is ostensibly through Congress, and not the courts.

This unjustified claim would have been less shocking if it hadn't been made in the middle of a government shutdown of embarrassing and potentially catastrophic consequences. In the current mess, abandoning strong VRA lawsuits against Texas and North Carolina to a dysfunctional Congress makes no sense.

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