WASHINGTON – With political heat intensifying about voting rights, most members of Congress from Tennessee are staying mum on whether the Voting Rights Act needs strengthening after a 2013 court ruling that many saw as eviscerating the landmark law.
Republican Reps. Diane Black of Gallatin, Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood, Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump, Chuck Fleischmann of Ooltewah, John Duncan Jr. of Knoxville and Phil Roe of Johnson City declined to answer repeated questions put to their offices about whether they would support legislation addressing the Supreme Court ruling.
There is only one Tennessee co-sponsor of the proposed changes: Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.
The Supreme Court, in a case involving Shelby County, Ala., declared unconstitutional the act's formula for measuring whether states must forward proposed election-system changes to the Justice Department for review — a process called "pre-clearance."
The Voting Rights Act, originally passed in 1965, had long used a formula that compared — among other factors — turnout rates in presidential elections among whites and nonwhites. It also targeted the pre-clearance requirement at specific states, especially those in the South with a history of discriminatory voting requirements. Tennessee is not one of those states.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., have introduced identical bills in the House and Senate to update the coverage formula and base pre-clearance requirements on the number of civil rights violations tied to voting over a rolling 15-year period.
Sensenbrenner's bill has 22 co-sponsors and Leahy's only two. Civil rights groups say the requirement in the House that any co-sponsor bring along one from the other party is holding back the numbers.
A coalition of about 36 civil rights groups and labor unions wants to pass the House version first, and Wednesday it began pressuring Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The coalition sent him a letter urging a hearing and a vote on the Sensenbrenner bill as soon as possible.
"There is increased pressure coming," said Deborah Vagins of the American Civil Liberties Union. "If the bill would come to the floor, we are confident it would pass."
The civil rights groups plan to hold a televised news conference Thursday.
"There is a high level of partisanship. That is probably the biggest barrier (to passing amendments)," said Eric McDaniel, an expert on civil rights and the politics of race at the University of Texas.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, opposes the bill, saying it will encourage racial gerrymandering, trigger "manufactured" complaints and advance Democrats' interests.
ut Cooper said he was pleased that Republicans such as Sensenbrenner "agree that the Supreme Court did the wrong thing by cutting back on our voting rights."
"This bill will help repair the damage the court did."
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, has announced his support but has not been able to sign on as a co-sponsor because he can't find a Republican to pair with.
One of the few Republicans willing to discuss it was Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Jasper, but he won't support it.
"While Tennessee was not subject to any of the pre-clearance rules in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act we have always conducted fair, impartial elections and protected the right of eligible citizens to vote. To that end, I do not believe further legislation is necessary," DesJarlais said in a prepared statement.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander called the Votings Right Act "one of the most effective pieces of civil rights legislation in our country's history. I've always supported it."
Like fellow Republican Sen. Bob Corker, Alexander said he would "carefully" consider proposed changes.