WASHINGTON — The future of the Voting Rights Act has been in limbo for a while now, and with the stunning primary loss of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, supporters of a legislative response to last year's Supreme Court decision are searching for a new way forward.
Cantor was a crucial ally for members working to restore Section 4 of the VRA, which the Supreme Court struck down in Shelby County v. Holder decision last June. Section 4 included the formula that determined which states — mostly Southern states with histories of voter discrimination — needed federal approval before making changes to voting laws. The court ruled that the formula was no longer valid and left it to Congress to come up with a new formula.
While Cantor had not publicly backed legislation introduced by Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Democrat Rep. John Conyers to fix the formula, he had spoken openly of his commitment to restoring protections in the VRA. He had traveled with civil rights hero and Rep. John Lewis on a trip to Selma, Ala., and when the Shelby ruling came down he said Congress should "find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected."
Sensenbrenner and others are trying to now assess what Cantor's loss means for the bill. There's been no committee hearing thus far on the bill, and without Cantor in the majority leader position, it's unlikely the bill will see floor action any time soon.
"It's a work in progress," Sensenbrenner said. "I don't know what Cantor's loss means for it. I'm going to be doing some calling around in the next week to find out."
Conyers guessed that Cantor would continue to work with the group to push for the bill, even after he steps down as majority leader.
"We can't tell yet what it means," the Michigan Democrat said. "We trust that even though he's retiring from the leadership he will still be working with us on it. I'm putting this in a positive light presuming that he will still work just as hard maybe even harder as a result."
As recently as Tuesday — before Cantor even lost — members were meeting with voting rights advocates about the bill. Minority Whip Steny Hoyer — who had originally invited Cantor on the trip to Selma and who has been involved in trying to come up with legislative action — told reporters on Wednesday that the bill was already moving at glacial pace so it was unlikely that Cantor's loss would substantially further stall their efforts.
"It wasn't moving very fast. Whether it slows it down or not we'll see, but I'm hopeful Mr. Cantor will be a leader in this effort. He could be very helpful," Hoyer said.