Obama Administration Looks To Mend Voting Rights Act

Jul 29, 2013
Originally published on July 31, 2013 9:01 pm



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

At the White House today, a meeting aimed at keeping the Voting Rights Act alive. The Supreme Court struck down a key part of that law last month. President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder have been highly critical of that ruling. And in the Roosevelt Room this afternoon, the president met with Holder and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. They were joined by civil rights leaders and local elected officials, all there to discuss what to do next.

NPR's Ari Shapiro joins us now from the White House. And, Ari, why don't you tell us a little bit more about who was there at this meeting?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, we saw most of the attendees file out onto the White House driveway, and there were lots of boldface names from the civil rights community: leaders of the Urban League, La Raza, people from the NAACP and the ACLU. We did not get sight of Attorney General Eric Holder, who was in the meeting, or President Obama.

And then also the newly confirmed Labor secretary, Tom Perez, was there. Before he held this job, he ran the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. That's the section of Justice that enforces the Voting Rights Act. So, in all, it was roughly a dozen civil rights leaders, plus state and local officials.

BLOCK: Yeah. And do we know much about the substance of their conversation today?

SHAPIRO: Well, the folks who came out and spoke on the driveway said they more or less agreed it's premature to talk about what Congress might do in regards to the Voting Rights Act. But they said right now they're focused on using the tools that are still at their disposal even after the Supreme Court ruling on this law. Here's what Marc Morial of the Urban League said.

MARC HAYDEL MORIAL: The Supreme Court struck down one provision, not the entire act, and the president and the attorney general know that, understand that and reaffirm their commitment to enforce that act.

BLOCK: And, Ari, what does that mean really? What has the administration been doing about the Voting Rights Act since the Supreme Court ruling last month?

SHAPIRO: Well, last week, the attorney general took some action in Texas that provides a road map of where things might be going from here. Attorney General Holder asked a federal judge to order oversight of the state's redistricting process. That involves a map of the state's legislative districts.

Courts rejected the map last year, but the state revived the plan this summer. And Holder argues that the map discriminates against minority voters. Now, Texas Republicans say this action by the attorney general is an attempt to short-circuit the Supreme Court ruling. Before the Supreme Court issued this 5-4 ruling in June, voting changes like the one in Texas required pre-approval from the federal government.

Now, if the Justice Department wants to have a say in these matters, they have to take a more active approach, which means we could be seeing a wave of cases down the road like this one in Texas. Holder and President Obama have both said that they intend to, as Holder put it, stand against discrimination wherever it is found.

BLOCK: Right. And the president did say, right after the Supreme Court ruling, that he was deeply disappointed. He did imply further action on his administration's part to ensure fair voting in the country.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. In his view, he said, this ruling upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, he said, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

And, you know, more broadly, President Obama has, I think, shown more investment in issues of race lately, not only in talking about the Voting Rights Act, but, of course, earlier this month, after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin shooting, he talked about how black people experience struggles in America in a different way from other people.

Over the weekend, in an interview with The New York Times, he said he plans to participate in the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this year. And in that same interview, he said racial tensions will not improve - they'll get worse - unless the economy gets better. So this is clearly on the president's mind, and we may see him talk more about it in the future.

BLOCK: When the Supreme Court ruled, Ari, they effectively kicked it back to Congress, said if you want to draft a new formula, you can do that. Is there any sign that Congress may take action on the Voting Rights Act?

SHAPIRO: Well, the House and Senate have both had committee hearings, but the question in those hearings was really do we even need a new Voting Rights Act? And so it's very premature preliminary discussions. There is nothing on the horizon like a bill that the House or Senate could vote on.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Ari Shapiro at the White House. Ari, thanks so much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.