Passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is the first step to heal our democracy

In his final words to our country, John LewisJohn LewisHarris, CBC put weight behind activist-led National Black Voter Day Budowsky: High stakes drama for Biden, Manchin, Sinema Stacey Abrams backs Senate Democrats' voting rights compromise MORE told us that together we can redeem the soul of our nation. He also counseled that redemption is only delivered from the truth. The divisive battle over the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election laid bare one such truth: Voter fraud is not the challenge that confronts our democracy. Rather, the challenge to America’s great experiment remains what it has been since our nation’s founding: pernicious efforts to silence the voices of racial and ethnic minorities at the ballot box, and their fight to be heard and their votes counted. These challenges to minority voting rights are enduring, persistent, and verifiable. To heal our democracy, lawmakers must begin with affirmative legislation that confronts this legacy problem of our republic. That bill is the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The 2020 voter fraud conspiracy, which alleged that the 2020 election was not legitimately won by President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: Coronavirus dominates as country struggles with delta variant Did President Biden institute a vaccine mandate for only half the nation's teachers? Democrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms MORE, has rightfully been called “the big lie.” The truth is that the myth of voter fraud is an effective trope that has been used for decades to inhibit the political power of people of color. This recent effort to throw out ballots lawfully cast by Black, Latinx, and Indigenous voters in the 2020 election is in step with this history. We collectively witnessed how the voter fraud myth metastasized to try and swallow our democracy by preying on the growing political power of racial minorities.

The language used by officials who deny the legitimacy of the election mirrors efforts from the earlier half of the 20th century. “Illegal voting” or “illegitimate voters” is the same propaganda used by the adopters of poll taxes and literacy tests to disenfranchise Black voters during the Jim Crow era up through the Civil Rights Movement. It’s the chorus of officials today who continue to shamelessly advance measures to restrict access to voting for minority, elderly, and disabled voters.

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Next year will be the first national redistricting cycle since the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Section 5 required state and local governments with records of voter discrimination to preclear voting changes with the Justice Department to ensure the changes were not racially discriminatory. For the first time since 1965, congressional, state, and local government legislative districts will be drawn without the key protections of the Voting Rights Act.

Our democracy is in dire need of stronger legal protections. Last year’s presidential election was the most litigated in our country’s history. At least 60 legal challenges were filed to invalidate lawfully cast ballots. These lawsuits had a single purpose: to disenfranchise qualified voters who voted against President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE. Post-election lawsuits squarely targeted jurisdictions with the highest proportion of racial minority voters.

The courts — both federal and state, judges nominated by both Republicans and Democrats —unanimously rejected these challenges. On top of their baseless claims, the lawsuits sought extreme, anti-democratic outcomes and included motions to prohibit state officials from certifying election results, block presidential electors from casting their votes, or stop officials from counting ballots altogether. In decision after decision, judges cited either the flimsiness or total absence of evidence to support fraud allegations, irregularities, or malfeasance in the election process.

Despite this unanimous rejection by courts, states have already launched legislative reprisals against the historic turnout by voters of color. Georgia officials blatantly targeted minority voters this month with aggressive efforts to cut access to absentee voting, which has been available to all voters in the state since 2005 and which Black voters used in historic numbers in 2020 due to COVID-19. In Arizona, lawmakers introduced a spate of proposals to make it harder to vote.

For many of us on the frontlines of the voting rights fight, the absence of fraud evidence is entirely unsurprising. It’s consistent with our record of litigation challenging photo ID laws, cuts to early voting, voter registration restrictions, and voter purges, all of which were advanced in the name of preventing voter fraud — the singular pretext repeatedly used to justify the restrictions that disproportionately encumber voters of color.

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The ACLU’s litigation experience after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act’s protections reveals two things. Our record of success in blocking discriminatory voting changes shows that state and local officials continue to engage in a widespread and illegal pattern of racial discrimination. Second, the public lacks the tools to stop discriminatory voting law changes before they impact an election. Discriminatory laws that we ultimately succeeded in blocking remained in place for months or even years while our litigation proceeded — during which elections were held, and hundreds of government officials were elected.

The John Lewis Voting Advancement Rights Act will provide the public with the legal tools to block official acts of discrimination from infecting elections at the federal, state, and local levels. The bill does not seek to displace state or local voting procedures, so long as the procedures do not unconstitutionally infringe on the electorate’s right to vote free from discriminatory conditions.

Instead, it provides a framework of remedies and protection for voters who are at risk of racial discrimination by helping to root out unconstitutional voting procedures before they impede the voting process. It does this by restoring the preclearance regime that was gutted by the Supreme Court, ensuring public notice of voting changes, lowering the burden for obtaining a court order against problematic voting changes, and restoring the availability of neutral federal observers to ensure people can vote freely and fairly. The prophylactic approach adopted by this legislation is modeled after the original Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is broadly viewed as one of the most successful pieces of civil rights legislation precisely because it prevented unlawful voting procedures from going into effect in the first place.

Until recently, the Voting Rights Act’s protections have appealed to bipartisan sensibilities. For decades, the Supreme Court recognized that Congress acts at the apex of its constitutional power when legislating to preserve the most fundamental act in a free society: the right to vote. This is why the Voting Rights Act has enjoyed broad bipartisan support. Every reauthorization of the act’s provisions — in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006 — was signed into law by a Republican president.

In 2006, Congress reaffirmed its bipartisan support for protections for minority voters, passing the House with a vote of 390-33 and the Senate with a vote of 98-0. Many of those who voted in favor of the 2006 Voting Rights Act reauthorization continue to serve in Congress, including Sens. Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Overnight Hillicon Valley — Scrutiny over Instagram's impact on teens US gymnasts offer scathing assessment of FBI MORE (R-Tenn.), Roy BluntRoy Dean BluntGOP hopes spending traps derail Biden agenda A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by AT&T - Senate passes infrastructure bill, budget resolution; Cuomo resigns MORE (R-Mo.), John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanMore than ever, we must 'stand to' — and stand behind — our veterans Trump getting tougher for Senate GOP to ignore Former NFL player challenging Boozman in Arkansas GOP primary MORE (R-Ark.), Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrEmboldened Trump takes aim at GOP foes NC Republican primary key test of Trump's sway The 19 GOP senators who voted for the T infrastructure bill MORE (R-N.C.), Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Senate Democrats ding Biden energy proposal Capito grills EPA nominee on '#ResistCapitalism' tweet GOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization MORE (R-W.Va.), John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats make case to Senate parliamentarian for 8 million green cards Democrats to make pitch Friday for pathway to citizenship in spending bill Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime MORE (R-Texas), Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - Tight security for Capitol rally; Biden agenda slows Trump offers sympathy for those charged with Jan. 6 offenses Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-S.C.), Charles GrassleyChuck GrassleyGrassley calls for federal prosecutor to probe botched FBI Nassar investigation Woman allegedly abused by Nassar after he was reported to FBI: 'I should not be here' Democrat rips Justice for not appearing at US gymnastics hearing MORE (R-Iowa), James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal Austin, Milley to testify on Afghanistan withdrawal The Pentagon budget is already out of control: Some in Congress want to make it worse MORE (R-Okla.), Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE (R-Ky.), Jerry MoranGerald (Jerry) MoranIt's time for Congress to act before slow mail turns into no mail Kaine says he has votes to pass Iraq War repeal in Senate Seven-figure ad campaign urges GOP to support infrastructure bill MORE (R-Kan.), Richard ShelbyRichard Craig ShelbyCrypto debate set to return in force Press: Why is Mo Brooks still in the House? Eshoo urges Pelosi to amend infrastructure bill's 'problematic' crypto regulation language MORE (R-Ala.), John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneManchin keeps Washington guessing on what he wants Manchin-McConnell meet amid new voting rights push Republican leaders misjudged Jan. 6 committee MORE (R-S.D.) and Roger WickerRoger Frederick WickerTop Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal NY Democrat tests positive for COVID-19 in latest House breakthrough case Florida Democrat becomes latest breakthrough COVID-19 case in House MORE (R-Miss.).

There can be no doubt that the need to safeguard minority voting rights is as dire today as it was in 2006. The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 showed the world that democracy is fragile, even in the United States, and we have to fight for it. All Americans have a shared interest in resuscitating the health of our democracy, and Congress has an opportunity to do just that by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Sonia Gill is ACLU senior legislative counsel.