Why We’re Challenging House Republican Leadership to Act on Voting Rights

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Almost five months to the day after Speaker of the House John Boehner issued a statement to mark the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Ohio congressman’s website and Twitter feed on August 6 – the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act – was noticeably silent on issues of voting.

“Guided by their determination, inspired by their courage, and moved by their call for justice,” Boehner said of the Selma marchers, “let us honor their sacrifice by rededicating ourselves to the cause of freedom and equal opportunity for every American.”

That was on March 7. Three days earlier, Boehner signed a measure awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to Selma’s foot soldiers, saying, “Long may we retrace their journey. Long may we remember their struggle. Long may they remain an example.”

On voting rights issues, though, Boehner and other members of House Republican leadership aren’t living up to the examples set 50 years ago. Despite evidence of widespread voter discrimination, and despite the introduction of two bills in the House that would help to restore portions of the VRA gutted in Shelby County v. Holder, there has been no movement to even examine the issue at the committee level.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, whose comments on modern-day voting discrimination (namely, that it doesn’t exist) have become a broken record in the two years since Shelby, is blocking that examination – in the form of a hearing. Less than two months ago, just three days before the second Shelby anniversary, Goodlatte said that we still have a “strong” Voting Rights Act. “We are certainly willing to look at any new evidence of discrimination if there is a need to take any measures,” he said in an interview. “But at this point in time, we have not seen that, and therefore no changes have been made since the Supreme Court decision.”

Civil rights advocates have taken issue with that constant, myopic response. In separate letters to Boehner and Goodlatte on the VRA’s anniversary, Wade Henderson and Nancy Zirkin of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights expressed their “profound disappointment” in the leaders’ inaction, which they call an “abdication of [their] responsibility to the Congress and to the nation.” Pointing to examples in Ohio and Virginia – Boehner’s and Goodlatte’s home states, respectively – and other modern cases in North Carolina and Texas, the letters illustrate that, despite claims that voting discrimination is a thing of the past, voters across the country are being disenfranchised.

But there’s another member of House Republican leadership that should be encouraging efforts to restore the VRA: Majority Whip Steve Scalise. After Scalise acknowledged in late December 2014 that he had given a speech in 2002 to a white supremacist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi organization, Henderson and Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, wrote to Scalise, met with him, and then wrote to him again urging him to take action on issues of race and to help move forward efforts to protect voters.

Scalise has taken no action. “We explained the need for action, and you offered to help,” wrote Henderson and Morial in their third letter to him on August 6. “That offer has rung hollow. As part of House Leadership, you have a responsibility to serve not only the constituents in your district, but also the broader national constituency.”

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has at least signaled an interest in holding a House hearing on voting rights, saying, “an overall review, I think, it’s the right time to do it.” And McCarthy, too, at least traveled to Selma this year to commemorate Bloody Sunday in person, not simply with a statement. Boehner, Goodlatte, and Scalise have refused to do anything at all.

Given a recent Fifth Circuit Court decision saying that Texas’s voter ID law – which was blocked by the VRA’s now inoperable preclearance provision prior to Shelby but implemented after the decision and enforced during last November’s election, disenfranchising as many as 600,000 voters – is a violation of the VRA because it discriminates against Black and Hispanic voters, the existence of racial discrimination in voting is no longer negotiable. Across the country, eligible voters are being denied access to the ballot, and it’s time for House leadership to finally acknowledge it and take action.