WASHINGTON – The House passed legislation Tuesday that supporters said would restore key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013 in a controversial decision derided by civil rights groups.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., introduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act earlier this month amid ongoing efforts by Republican-led state legislatures across the country to put new laws in place that critics say will make it more difficult to vote, particularly for communities of color, people with disabilities and Americans living in poorer areas.
The bill was passed on a 219-to-212 party-line vote.
Though the latest efforts from GOP state leaders are largely a response to the 2020 election and former president Donald Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen, activists have been focused on expanding voting rights since the 2013 Supreme Court decision. In Shelby County v. Holder, the court’s conservative majority ruled that the law’s provision for determining voter discrimination was outdated – a decision that greatly curtailed the ability of the federal government to monitor the election processes of states with a history of racism.
Like many Democrats, Sewell said she greatly disagrees with the court’s ruling and introduced the bill earlier this month while standing at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where the late congressman John Lewis, D-Ga., was brutally assaulted in 1965 as he and others marched for civil rights for Black Americans.
“The right to vote is the most sacred and fundamental right we enjoy as American citizens and one that the foot soldiers fought, bled and died for in my hometown of Selma, Alabama,” Sewell said last week. “With the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, we’re standing up and fighting back. By preventing states with a recent history of voter discrimination from restricting the right to vote, this bill restores the full promise of our democracy and advances the legacy of those brave foot soldiers like John Lewis who dedicated their lives for the sacred right to vote.”
Like voting rights advocates decades ago, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., chair of the House Democratic Caucus, discussed the bill in the context of civil rights.
“Those who worship at the altar of voter suppression will fail. Those who worship at the altar of Jim Crow will fail. Those who worship at the altar of turning back the clock to make America hate again will fail,” he said during Tuesday’s floor debate. “We are not going backwards.”
In its 2013 decision, the Supreme Court found that Congress had not done enough to justify continued vigilance in historically discriminatory jurisdictions. The parts of the act impacted by the ruling covered the Southern states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia, as well as Alaska, Arizona and parts of seven other states. It required them to receive “pre-clearance” from the U.S. attorney general or federal judges before making any changes to election or voting laws.
Sewell’s bill would restore this pre-clearance requirement by updating the formula that would determine which states and local entities are subject to federal oversight. The bill would also amend Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act to remove the elevated standard for challenging voter discrimination that the Supreme Court recently put in place.
More than 190 lawmakers – most of them Democrats – have co-sponsored Sewell’s bill as several Republican-led legislatures have introduced dozens of laws that voting rights activists say will make voting more difficult.
Historically, there has been bipartisan support for the Voting Rights Act, and the last congressional reauthorization, in 2006, passed the Senate 98 to 0. But that has changed since the 2013 Supreme Court decision, with Republicans mostly opposing efforts to update the law.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., argued during Tuesday’s debate that because voting is easier for Black Americans in 2021 than it has ever been based on the percentage of Black Americans who voted in the most recent election, the bill is mostly about federal overreach that would give the Democratic Party an advantage in upcoming elections.
“Our country has come a long way since the Jim Crow era,” he said. “If you vote for this legislation, you are voting for a federal takeover of elections and removing people that are elected to run elections from making decisions about how elections are run, including voter ID laws and putting an unaccountable, unelected czar at the DOJ – the attorney general – in charge of all election decisions in this country.”
A more sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation’s voting law passed the House earlier this year but was blocked in the Senate by Republicans in June. The newly passed House bill is unlikely to advance in the Senate due to Republican opposition. Voting rights advocates have urged Democrats to get rid of the chamber’s filibuster – which essentially requires 60 votes for most legislation to pass – to ensure that major changes to the nation’s voting laws are enacted to counter the voter restrictions being put in place in states controlled by Republicans. But a handful of moderate Democrats are opposed to getting rid of the rule, arguing it serves a check on both parties and encourages bipartisanship.