03/09/2015 06:27 pm ET Updated Mar 09, 2015

Sen. Tim Scott Calls For Updating Voting Rights Act, But Opposes Bill That Would Do It


WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) won't support legislation to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But on Sunday, he called for updating the landmark law in a way that sounds awfully similar to the legislation he opposes.

In an interview on CBS' "Face the Nation," Scott was asked if he supports a bill that would restore a key portion of the law that the Supreme Court struck down in June 2013. That provision, Section 4, determined which states and localities with a history of suppressing minority voters had to get permission from the Justice Department to change their voting laws. In a 5-4 ruling, the court said that section was outdated, and left it up to Congress to come up with a new formula for designating which regions of the country warrant special scrutiny.

Lawmakers have put forward a bill that offers a solution: It would update the formula to make it apply to states and jurisdictions with voting violations in the past 15 years. But supporters have had a hard time getting Republicans to sign on, which has prevented the measure from moving forward. The House bill has just a handful of GOP co-sponsors; the forthcoming Senate bill has none.

Scott, one of two African-American senators, wouldn't endorse the bill in his Sunday interview. Instead, he praised the Supreme Court for striking down Section 4 because he said the law unfairly punished Southern states for voter discrimination that took place decades ago. The key, he said, is to apply the law to the parts of the country currently engaging in voter disenfranchisement.

"What I would support is, take a second view at the Voting Rights Act, and see how we can apply it universally to all Americans, every place, and let’s judge people and states based on their performance today and not 40 or 50 years ago," Scott said.

Southern states have made progress protecting voters' rights, Scott continued, so "we should make sure that the formulas that are used do not punish the history of the state but should represent the current state of affairs."

In other words, precisely what the proposed Voting Rights Act legislation would do.

A Scott spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on whether Scott's comments mean he will support the bill.

South Carolina was one of the states that previously required scrutiny by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act. In his Sunday interview, Scott said the mere fact that he was elected to the Senate is proof that his home state should no longer qualify as one of those states.

"I was elected statewide to the United States Senate by the voters of South Carolina, and I was first elected to Congress at the home, the start, of the Civil War," he said. "So there’s no doubt about the fact that there has been amazing progress throughout the South."

But South Carolina is among several states that have passed laws since 2011 making voting more difficult for people who are poor, disabled or a minority, through such means as requiring a government-issued ID in order to vote. The Justice Department blocked South Carolina's voter ID law in 2011, and a federal court prevented its implementation in 2012, saying the state didn't give voters enough time to understand the law's complexities ahead of the November 2012 elections.

In particular, the court found, the voter ID law "could have discriminatory effects and impose material burdens on African-American voters, who in South Carolina disproportionately lack one of the R54-listed photo IDs."

Scott was an honorary co-chairman of last weekend's congressional trip to Selma to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights marches. He suggested Thursday that people shouldn't view his support for the Selma commemoration as support for restoring the Voting Rights Act. He said the two matters should be "de-coupled.”

"The issue of voting rights legislation and the issue of Selma, we ought to have an experience that brings people together and not make it into a political conversation,” Scott said in a McClatchy interview.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who plans to introduce the Senate's voting rights bill "soon," said Monday that he's still looking for at least one Republican co-sponsor.

"The Republican Party of 2006 reached across the aisle to advance the cause of voting rights," Leahy said. "I am still hopeful that the Republican Senate of 2015 will continue this bipartisan tradition."



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