WASHINGTON — Civil rights leaders and elected officials told President Barack Obama that they plan a wide-ranging campaign to assist the federal government in litigating voting-rights cases, following a Supreme Court decision that sapped some federal oversight power.
Close to 20 civil rights advocates met earlier this week with Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez — the former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division — in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.
The NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Urban League, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund were some of the groups pledging a coordinated campaign to find alleged voting-rights violations.
Also present was Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who said he would enlist fellow mayors in the effort and implied that it would require a fundraising campaign.
“More resources are going to be required in order to set the record for the kind of discrimination that we believe is afoot in the United States of America,” Reed said after the meeting. “And we cannot rely on these (civil rights) organizations to respond without being well-sourced.”
In June, the Supreme Court struck down the Voting Rights Act formula that required certain states and areas with a history of discrimination to submit all new voting laws to the federal government for “pre-clearance” before they could be enacted. The formula, having changed little since the law was passed in 1965, was ruled unconstitutionally stale in a 5-4 decision, though Congress could come up with a new one.
Some state leaders, such as Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens and Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, cheered the ruling for removing what they felt was an onerous requirement based on an outdated standard, while keeping a mechanism to file suit against any discriminatory law.
While the days of literacy tests are long gone, civil rights groups – and Obama himself – have argued that other forms of discrimination persist to a degree that requires federal intervention before they can be enacted. Advocates are concerned that voting changes in small towns and rural areas that dilute minority voting power will fly under the radar.
“They are open to many of us on the ground to … be resources to bring any violation of the Voting Rights Act directly to the Justice Department,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton. “We’ve been greatly encouraged by that. There is a wound in the Voting Rights Act, but it is far from dead. It’s not even on critical.”
The Department of Justice has refocused its efforts from pre-clearing laws to filing voting-rights lawsuits. Holder announced last week that the department would intervene in a Texas case designed to put the entire state under pre-clearance through the little-used Section 3 of the Act.
A Section 3 court-ordered pre-clearance is limited in scope and difficult to obtain, as it requires proving intentional discrimination by lawmakers.
“To the extent that (civil rights groups are) scouring the country for these Section 3 potential cases, they’re not going to find hundreds of them overnight by any stretch,” said Jason Torchinsky, an attorney not affiliated with the civil rights groups who helped Sandy Springs, Ga., get a “bailout” from pre-clearance requirements in 2010.
Georgia state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a former president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators who attended Monday’s meeting, said the Justice Department did not offer a hint of its next target after Texas – other than Holder’s promise for more robust enforcement.
“There was a discussion on where the energy and where the resources would come from to deal with things at the local and state level, so that is something, and the jury’s still out on that aspect,” Smyre said.
The groups also pledged to pressure Congress to remake a pre-clearance formula.
The House and the Senate have staged preliminary hearings, but some Republicans have expressed skepticism that any new law is necessary. Leaders of the congressional effort have said they will put forth a bill this fall.
Participants in the meeting said it was too early to describe the bill’s outline in public, but they expressed confidence that they could push it through. White House officials told their guests that assembling a bipartisan coalition would be tough in this divided Congress, as it has been for Obama’s other key initiatives, Smyre said.
Michael Carvin, a Washington attorney who opposes the campaign for a new law and recently testified in the Senate against the need for any pre-clearance, said he does not expect Congress to act.
“I don’t think that there’s going to be much legislation coming out of this because there’s nothing really to fix,” he said.