McCarthy Could be Key to Restoring the VRA

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When then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his primary race last June just two weeks before the first anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, his defeat appeared to remove the only member of Republican leadership who supported a path forward on restoring the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

Seven weeks later, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R. Calif., took over the Majority Leader post, and voting rights advocates wondered: Where does he stand on voting rights?

As Leslie Proll, director of NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Washington, D.C. office, pointed out, though McCarthy wasn’t in Congress in 2006 when the VRA was overwhelmingly reauthorized, he co-chaired Congress’s civil rights pilgrimage to Alabama in 2012 to honor the 47th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Now McCarthy had a chance, as Proll put it, to “show that his visit to Selma was more than just a photo op.”

And though McCarthy hasn’t cosponsored any legislation to fix the law that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013 in Shelby County v. Holder, two weeks ago he said publically that any voting rights restoration bill would have to start in the Judiciary Committee – and that now is the time for that to happen. “On a personal level, I’d like to see the debate go forward,” McCarthy said. “I’d like to see [us] have the debate in committee. I think everything, when it’s first written and where the world is today, has changed. So just as most of our bills, how do you modernize?”

“An overall review, I think, it’s the right time to do it.”

But the chairman of that committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R. Va., said earlier this year that it’s not necessary to restore the law – a position he’s maintained since Shelby.

As the nation commemorates the VRA’s 50th anniversary this week, McCarthy must make the case to Goodlatte that holding a hearing in his committee is the right thing to do. It’s the logical way for Congress to explore modern cases of racial discrimination in voting, but it’s also an appropriate method of honoring those who marched 50 years ago.

And McCarthy has been – symbolically, at least – honoring them. He again made the trip to Selma this March to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (as he tweeted about here and here), and he also delivered a speech on the House floor a month earlier when Congress was considering a measure to award Congressional Gold Medals to Selma’s foot soldiers.

“We are gathered today in honor of those civil rights activists who suffered violence while standing for peace,” McCarthy said at the end of his speech. “We honor them for holding our nation to the highest ideals, ensuring the true existence of liberty and justice for all, and making this country keep to its promise that all men and women are created equal.”

If McCarthy wants to move beyond the symbolism and actually honor those marchers, he should strongly encourage Goodlatte to finally hold a hearing on voting rights – because 50 years after the VRA was signed into law, racial discrimination in voting isn’t over. And without a law to restore it, it’s only going to keep getting worse.