These advancing practices form what Carol Anderson, author of One Person, No Vote and an African American-studies professor at Emory University refers to as “Jim Crow 2.0,” or a campaign to “frustrate people out of their basic right.” According to advocates, these practices mostly avoid breaking the letter of the law and targeting voters of color in favor of more subtle machinations that indirectly or merely disproportionately affect those voters. They’re exactly the kind of machinations that the Justice Department was prepared for by recalcitrant Jim Crow states after the VRA was passed in 1965. And they’re exactly the kind of things that federal preclearance was intended to stop.
As Sewell outlined to me, the VRAA would re-establish this intentional scrutiny of more subtle elections-law changes, and would update them for a new era. “At the end of the day, the Shelby decision was really a call to action for Congress to come up with a modern day formula,” Sewell said. That modern formula would dictate that any state or district with 15 or more voting-rights violations over the past 25 years would be subject to 10 years of federal preclearance. The requirement would be lowered to just 10 violations if any of them was committed by the state itself. The law is designed to specifically counter Roberts’s critique of the old VRA coverage formula, and to provide what Sewell calls a “living, breathing policy.” It would cover almost a dozen states, including South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, California, Texas, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina.
The law is also designed to meet specific political goals. In countering the main legal argument against existing VRA protections, Democrats force Republicans who almost certainly won’t vote for the update to come up with a new public rationale for refusing to defend the law. And that comes as opinion polls, including an October 2018 Pew Research poll, indicate that large majorities of Americans favor making voting easier. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already fallen into the trap, when in his remarks over H.R. 1—another Democratic measure that would implement national automatic voter registration, limit gerrymandering, and create an Election Day holiday, among other things—he called the bill a “power grab,” which Democratic lawmakers took as an admission that allowing more people to vote favors Democrats. As Sewell explains, the introduction of the VRAA is also intended to create a “drumbeat” of steady action on the voting-rights front, and to capitalize on the modern moment, when the 2018 controversies and the messaging successes of people such as Abrams are still fresh in the public memory.
At a press conference in the Capitol Tuesday, Democratic leadership seemed well aware of the significance of the moment. Sewell found herself flanked by an all-star group including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, Georgia Congressman and civil-rights legend John Lewis, House Judiciary Chair Jerry Nadler, South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, and Alabama Senator Doug Jones. “There is nothing more bedrock in America than the right to vote,” Schumer said. “There is nothing more despicable in America than denying the right to vote.” Schumer also called the 2013 Shelby County decision one of the worst that the Supreme Court has ever made.