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Groups call for move on voting rights bill

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By Gannett New Service
Sunday, June 1, 2014, 7:03 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A coalition of religious groups wants Congress to act on bipartisan legislation that would require some states, including Mississippi, to again get pre-approval from federal officials before making changes to their election systems.

The legislation is a response to a Supreme Court ruling last year that threw out a key section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“We feel a tremendous obligation to work on this issue,” said Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc, one of the groups that sent a letter to Congress. “This is just absolutely a moral issue. It's a sacred right that we're talking about, which is the right to vote. We do think with enough of us making a concerted and joint effort, we can make progress on this issue.”

National civil rights groups are pursuing the same goal, even as they start voter registration drives to get more minorities to the polls. The groups are invoking memories of “Freedom Summer,” when volunteers traveled to Mississippi to register blacks to vote in 1964, to give their effort emotional momentum.

Supporters of the voting rights measure, mostly Democrats, say the bill appears to have stalled since it was introduced earlier this year. Neither the Senate nor the House has scheduled hearings.

“We're working on it,” said Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Democrat from Louisiana. “I like the bill, but the question just becomes how many Republicans are willing to step up and vote on something like that before elections, and whether their leadership would make them do it.”

“I fully support protecting the voting rights of all Americans,” Virginia Republican Rep. Robert Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. “As Congress determines whether additional steps are needed to protect those rights, I will carefully consider legislative proposals addressing the issue.”

The bill, called the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, was proposed by Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., to revise the Voting Rights Act in response to the Supreme Court decision. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., has a companion bill in the Senate.

The court's ruling threw out the formula in the 1965 law that determined which states and other jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination had to obtain “pre-clearance” from federal officials before making changes to their election systems.

Under the proposal, states with at least five voting rights violations in the past 15 years would be subject to pre-clearance, and one of those violations would have to be statewide. Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas would be covered.

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