Republicans haven't exactly raced off the starting blocks to celebrate today's Voting Rights Act decision. The last time the law was renewed, in 2006, every single Senate Republican and the vast majority of House Republicans voted for it. But today SCOTUS asked Congress to take another crack at regulations that would backstop states or counties if they passed laws that discriminated against the voting rights of any racial group. Republicans were not sure where to go next. They were definitely pleased that Southern states, subjected to "pre-clearance" for years, were free at last.
"I'm very sensitive to make sure that everybody gets a chance to vote, but I think my state has made tremendous strides," said South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. "I feel comfortable that we can have fair elections." But he didn't know if he would back, or if the country would need, a new pre-clearance law.
Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions was more talkative. The decision, after all, was rooted in a dispute in his state's own Shelby County.
"Shelby County is a majority-white county," he said. "I know they elected an African-American Republican county commissioner. I think they have a five-member county commission. You've got a city, and now you've gotta draw districts and gerrymander districts to try to get an African-American [representative], and you can have honest disagreements, and they can sue you."
This, he said, was unfair. The decision was "was good news, I think, for the South, in that [there was] not sufficient evidence to justify treating them disproportionately than say Philadelphia or Boston or Los Angeles or Chicago ... Shelby County never had a history of denying the vote, certainly not now. There is racial discrimination in the country, but I don't think in Shelby County, Alabama, anyone is being denied the right to vote because of the color of their skin. It would be much more likely to have those things occur in Philadelphia, Chicago, or Boston."
It sounded like Sessions could support a pre-clearance law if it were applied more generally and didn't just hit the South. But he was undecided. "I voted for the VRA extension," he explained. "I wanted to vote for it, but at the very last minute I was very uneasy, because all of a sudden they expanded it to 25 years, and that probably wasn't justified. It would be an appropriate time for Congress to identify what we need in terms of the Voting Rights Act. It was passed in direct response to blatant voting rights denial based on the color of one's skin. That's how it was justified, correctly I think, in applying to states that had a real history of that. But now if you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren't being denied the vote because of the color of their skin."
Roll Call's Meredith Shiner prodded Sessions a bit, pointing out that most of the successful VRA lawsuits happened in states that had been subjected to pre-clearance.
"Well, it only applied to those districts, see?" said Sessions. "It doesn't apply to inner-city Philadelphia. It only applied to those. A lot of this is pre-clearance, and look, if you move a voting place across the street in an area of North Carolina that never had racial discrimination, do you need to get the approval of the attorney general of the United States, even though it has zero impact on voting? Any change of any kind had to be approved. The concern is, has the situation improved to the extent to which that's no longer acquired?"