James O'Keefe Says a New Voting Rights Bill is Racist Against Whites

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 5 2014 5:43 PM

James O'Keefe Says a New Voting Rights Bill is Racist Against Whites

Rep. James Sensenbrenner isn't the easiest congressman to get hold of. He does not stop in the halls to talk, unplanned, with reporters. He does not beckon the national media into his town hall meetings. So, kudos to James O'Keefe for going undercover, in hunting gear for some reason, and posing as a constituent. It's just confusing what he decided to do when he got in the room. O'Keefe insists that Sensenbrenner's attempt to restore some version of voting rights law pre-clearance is de facto racist.


There is no mention of the "Voting Rights Act" in the intro. It's called "a part of federal law that gives Eric Holder the power to approve election law in 16 states," and Sensenbrenner's amendment is called "legislation to give Eric Holder back power over state elections." Framed that way, what conservative could possibly support it?

In the room, asking questions, O'Keefe does use the law's name. He asks Sensenbrenner whether it's true that the bill "removes white people from the protections of the Voting Rights Act." Sensenbrenner says it isn't -- a red buzzer goes off. We're directed to language in Sec. III, subsection 4 of the bill, which defines "the term 'minority' as used throughout.

This is strange. That's not the bill's only mention of race -- it's a pretty trivial one, actually. The meat is in Sec. II.

Types of Violations.-- Section 3(c) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 1973a(c)) is amended by striking ``violations of the fourteenth or fifteenth amendment'' and inserting ``violations of the 14th or 15th Amendment; violations of this Act (other than a violation of section 2(a) which is based on the imposition of a requirement that an individual provide a photo identification as a condition of receiving a ballot for voting in an election for Federal, State, or local office); or violations of any Federal voting rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."

Discrimination "on the basis of race" or "color" isn't limited to one race or to non-whites. Later, the bill describes a "voting rights violation" as when "any court of the United States has determined that a denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority." 

Sure, there's more to the bill. The SCOTUS decision on VRA ended "pre-clearance" for a group of states that had histories of discrimination in voting. The amendment doesn't restore that standard. Its new standard includes special scrutiny for states or counties if they had, among other things, "extremely low minority turnout during the previous 15 calendar years." Yes, that "minority" refers to non-whites. But it doesn't, say, immediately put Texas back under the microscope.

But most people who covered the bill have been over this already. O'Keefe's claims just don't wash. For real news value in the video, we're left with this odd statement from Sensenbrenner.

I hope the president vetoes the bill... if the president loses this bill, he will lose an awful lot of the African-American support that he has.

That's pretty cynical, and it implies that the bill is designed to be good for blacks. An odd bookend to a day that saw a nominee to run DOJ's civil rights division taken down because he defended a convicted cop killer and yammered too honestly about the Voting Rights Act. The more conservatives believe that the VRA will be rigged against them, the easier it'll be to block nominees or amendments.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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