Civil Rights Surprise

Eric Cantor’s Last, Legacy-Burnishing Task: Update the VRA

Before he heads for the exits, Cantor can do something good for the country and broker a deal updating the Voting Rights Act.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

As the fallout from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary defeat continues, the departing number two in the House should burnish his legacy by pushing through a bill to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).

The Voting Rights Act prohibits discriminatory actions that had largely denied blacks the ability to vote in the South since Reconstruction following the Civil War. Congress has reauthorized the provisions of the VRA four times—most recently in 2006, under the leadership of George W. Bush and with bipartisan support from Congress. The House supported the measure 390-33 and the Senate unanimously approved the legislation 98-0. So why reauthorize the VRA now, and why should Eric Cantor be the driving force?

The strength of this landmark law is contained within Section 5—whose provisions mandate that covered jurisdictions (nine States and several counties that had been found to discriminate in the past) in the United States must submit any proposed changes in voting procedures to the Department of Justice prior to doing so—the so-called “pre-clearance provision.” Last year, the Supreme Court held in Shelby County v. Holder.

that the manner in which the federal government determined which jurisdictions were subject to preclearance was unconstitutional.

The bottom line? While the Court did not invalidate Section 5, it did rule Section 4(b) unconstitutional. Section 4(b) sets out the formulas for determining what jurisdictions can be covered under the law. Without those formulas, Section 5 can’t be enforced, so Section 5 has effectively been halted—until Congress steps in to rewrite the formulas, reflecting the progress we’ve made in the past 50 years to eliminate discrimination at the ballot box.

Here’s where Cantor comes in: while many have focused on his strong connections to K Street, his efforts to promote civil rights have largely been overlooked. Cantor traveled to Selma, Alabama with civil rights hero Representative John Lewis (D-GA) last year and offered the following observations immediately following the Shelby ruling last year:

My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all. I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.

Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy (D-VT), in an effort to update the VRA, have introduced two companion bills in the House and Senate. Many conservatives have opposed these bills as they claim minorities will be protected at the expense of whites.

While Cantor has not commented directly on Sensenbrenner’s bill, he’s widely been seen as an ally based on supportive comments he has made about the topic generally. His leadership is needed to forge a compromise that will allow this important law to be updated before his departure as majority leader on July 31. I spoke to John Feehery, former senior advisor and spokesman to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL), about how Republicans were able to push the bill through the House and Senate for President Bush’s signature in 2006.

“Hastert pushed it with Sensenbrenner as it was good politics and the right thing to do,” Feehery explained. “Hastert pushed it through the House through pure muscle.” When I asked how Cantor could do the same working with House Speaker John Boehner, Feehery continued: “Not only does Cantor understand that the party must continue with its legacy as the champion of civil rights, this would take a huge argument away from the Democrats who say Republicans are trying to take away the black vote.” Feehery is precisely right—as we honor the 50-year celebration and legacy of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it is time for the Republican Party to demonstrate leadership to address legitimate concerns while presenting a bill to President Obama for his signature.

Democrats have certainly done their fair share of utilizing the race card in the Obama era to demonize their political opponents. Efforts to enact sensible reforms to promote the integrity of the ballot box such as the presentation of an identification card have been demonized as racist. While this is wrong and not true, Republicans have an obligation to lead on civil rights issues, as this has been our historical legacy.

To this end, I can think of no better way for Cantor to end his tenure as House Majority Leader than for him to forge a consensus of the majority to preserve and protect the Voting Rights Act so all Americans will continue to have unfettered access to the ballot box—regardless of their skin color or ethnicity. I believe the outgoing majority leader from a Southern state could move the country forward by ensuring the House fulfills its obligation as the People’s House to act responsibly to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.