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U.S. Rep. John Lewis speaking before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled, "From Selma to Shelby County: Working Together to Restore the Protections of the Voting Rights Act." (Photo by Jack Gruber, USA TODAY staff) / Jack Gruber, USA TODAY staff

WASHINGTON - In the year since the Supreme Court ended close federal oversight of elections in Alabama and some other states, discrimination against minority voters has crept back into place, voting rights advocates say.

"The result of that decision is that minority voters have been left without critically needed voting protections for an entire year," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony Wednesday that, because the Justice Department is no longer looking over their shoulder, several local and state governments around the country have restricted some people's access to the ballot box.

Last year's Supreme Court case said the formula used to determine which states needed extra supervision in conducting elections was outdated and no longer constitutional.

That decision, in a case filed by Shelby County, Ala., effectively nullified the Voting Rights Act's "pre-clearance" provision, which had required that all or parts of 14 states get advance permission from the Justice Department before making any changes in voting procedures.

"It is clear that political entities previously coveredā?¦ have begun to use the Shelby County decision as license to enact discriminatory measures," said Ifill, who will testify at Wednesday's Senate hearing.

Senators are debating a proposal from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., that would update the Voting Rights Act's anti-discrimination formula and restore pre-clearance in states with the most recent and persistent problems.

As currently drafted, the proposal would require Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas to get their election procedures pre-approved because they've violated the Voting Rights Act at least five times in the last 15 years, including one statewide infraction.

"One year ago, five justices on the Supreme Court issued a disastrous Shelby County decision that removed crucial voter protections. It is time for Congress to act," Leahy said.

In the Senate, Leahy's bill has so far attracted support only from Democrats. A House version has bipartisan support, but GOP leaders there have not scheduled any hearings.

Wednesday's hearing likely will involve a lot of debate about Alabama.

Calera City Councilman Ernest Montgomery, a black Shelby County resident who intervened in the court case to try and preserve the pre-clearance provision, will attend the hearing.

Advocates for updating the voting rights law plan to highlight a recent case out of Evergreen, where black residents sued over city redistricting plans and the city agreed to again submit to pre-clearance for the next six years.

In another case, officials in Decatur, Ala., revived a plan to change procedures in city council elections, which civil rights advocates fear will disenfranchise minority voters. Alabama also implemented a new voter identification law this year that some say made it harder for some minorities to vote.

"The general election in November presents a looming opportunity for those actors who are inclined to discriminate, leaving many more voters of color vulnerable," Ifill said in her prepared testimony.

Not everyone believes that life without pre-clearance has been disastrous for minority voters. Conservatives in Congress - especially from states that for nearly 50 years had to prove in advance that even tiny changes in voting procedures wouldn't be discriminatory - say the past year has shown the country hasn't regressed to the days of rampant racism at the polls.

Witnesses invited by Republicans are expected to testify that the remaining sections of the Voting Rights Act give minority voters plenty of protection, including the ability to sue for discrimination and to restore pre-clearance for those cities or states with repeated problems.

Two members of Alabama's delegation have taken a firm position on the legislation. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., supports the return of pre-clearance but wants the new formula to include Alabama. And Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., is a co-sponsor of the House bill.



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Senate debates voting rights proposal

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