Bill to protect voting rights needed, must be reasonable

Six years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required federal approval for any changes to state voting laws or practices. That ruling made possible voter ID laws, voter roll purges and other questionable practices in Texas and other states.

The U.S. House of Representatives, on a party-line vote, recently passed a bill that would restore the provisions that the high court revoked. While practices since the 2013 ruling clearly indicate a need for continued voter protections, House Resolution 4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, carries provisions too similar to those that were thrown out.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 sought to guarantee fairness in voting across the country. It acknowledged that some states committed discrimination by requiring voters to own property, pass literacy tests and meet other requirements that would turn away many minority citizens who were otherwise constitutionally eligible to vote. The act identified several states that exercised such discrimination, and mandated that any voting changes proposed in those states must be approved by the Justice Department or federal court.

Originally, the provisions were intended to be temporary, expiring after five years. Congress, however, renewed and even expanded them. Texas and several other states were added to the list in 1975, based on perceived discrimination based on language rather than ethnicity.

The provision required preclearance for any state that showed evidence of voter discrimination over the previous 25 years. Over the years Congress simply renewed the provision without updating the data on which each state’s preclearance, and the Supreme Court ruled that the data had become too outdated to reliably justify keeping any state on the preclearance list.

HR 4 would largely reinstate the old provisions, requiring 10 years of preclearance for any state that had shown evidence of discriminatory practices over the previous 25 years.

No one expects the bill to pass the current Senate, but if it did Texas surely would be back on the preclearance list. Even if the state’s strict voter ID laws were accepted, past efforts to purge voter rolls have been stopped after courts found too many ethnic minorities, who were eligible to vote, had been removed.

Such practices shows vigilance is still needed. However, a 25-year window seems too large; it threatens to unfairly maintain sanctions against states that had made reforms.

Lawmakers should consider legislation that would consider improvement by states on the list, as well as new violations by states that aren’t on the list. Perhaps a new bill could call for audits of all states every 10 years, with preclearance imposed on states that showed evidence of discrimination in the previous 10 years. It would catch new sinners, reward reforms and offer reasonable time frames that might offer greater incentive for improvement.

It’s unfortunate that vigilance against voter suppression is still necessary. Legislation to fight it, however, needs to be reasonable, and avoid provisions that the courts already have rejected.