Urgency mounts for new voting rights bill

Greg Nash

Urgency is mounting among voter rights groups and Black lawmakers for President-elect Joe Biden to make a new and improved voting rights bill a top priority. 

In his first address to the American people as president-elect back in November, Biden made a bold pledge: that he’d have Black Americans’ backs.

The promise holds even more weight following last week’s insurrection at the Capitol that featured strong overtures of white nationalism.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the original 1965 Voting Rights Act that was gutted by a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2013. Given the slim majority Democrats will now enjoy the Senate, proponents are hopeful Biden will make it a headline of his agenda.

Biden transition spokesperson Jamal Brown told The Hill that the former vice president “will work to enact the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act when in office.”

The bill prevent state legislatures from unilaterally making changes to voting procedures, which they’ve been able to do since the 2013 ruling. In states where voting rights activists were successful in boosting the turnout of voters of color, proposals already exist to have sweeping roll backs of expanded voting rights that many states reluctantly introduced because of the pandemic. 

Such legislation has appeared in Texas and Georgia, two traditionally red states that became battlegrounds this election cycle.

In Texas, GOP state lawmakers are pushing to ban sending absentee ballot applications to Texans. In Georgia, Republicans in the state legislature are angling to curb a slew of voting rights, including no excuse absentee voting which the state has had since 2005.

Republican lawmakers in these states have claimed that their aim with the legislation is to root out voter fraud.

“This bill … is about making sure all votes in Texas are counted legally,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, one of the co-sponsors of the proposed legislation said in a press release on Nov. 18.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), who repeatedly rebuked President Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the Peach State, vocalized his support for getting rid of no-excuse absentee voting, saying that it “opens the door for potential illegal voting.”

Voting rights activists are quick to dismiss this line of reasoning, labeling the proposals as voter suppressive and discriminatory.

Voting rights activists are quick to dismiss this reasoning, labeling the proposals as voter suppressive and discriminatory.

Mryna Lopez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program, told The Hill that the Capitol riot and bill proposals “demonstrate the real vulnerability that our democracy faces.”

“There are persons in this country who are uninterested in having elections be the way that we resolve our political differences, And moreover, they are angry and outraged

that these elections don’t privilege [their] viewpoints.”

Francys Johnson, chair of the New Georgia Project’s board, likened combating Republicans’ efforts to “whack-a-mole” described the legislation as a “white supremacist effort.”

“That’s how it has always been,” he said. “That’s why there’s such a permanency to these white supremist efforts, because as you knock down barriers in one area they simply reemerge in others.”

Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that had been continually renewed since its inception, states that had a history of voter discrimation had to gain preclearance from the Department of Justice before a voting law change could take effect, shielding disenfranchised voters in the select states from further obstacles to cast their ballots.

But, in the 2013 Supreme Court case, Shelby v. Holder, the court said that the formula for deciding which states had to adhere to the preclearance was outdated and therefore unlawful.

In the seven years since the decision, multiple states — particularly in the South — have passed stricter voting laws at will, even laws that had previously been struck down by the Voting Rights Act.

“I always like to point to the Texas photo ID law as an example of the importance of having a preclearance provision,” Marcia Johnson-Blanco, co-director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Voting Rights Project, told The Hill.

“The Texas photo ID law was passed in 2011 when we were still under preclearance and Texas was subject to Section 5. They first submitted the voter ID law to DOJ for preclearance, DOJ objected. They then submitted it to the district court in the District of Columbia, and the court rejected it.”

In both instances, the law was found to be discriminatory towards voters of color. However, through a long series of appeals that went on after Section 5 had been ruled unconstitutional, a revised version of the voter ID law was eventually given the green light by a federal court in 2017.

“That’s just a stark example of a before and after of the protections that section five provided, and what happened in the cost of not having Section 5 in place,” Johnson-Blanco said.

H.R. 4, later renamed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would make it easier for preliminary injunctive relief from a potentially discriminatory voting law while litigation takes place as well as overhaul the formula for determining jurisdictions that require preclearance, restoring the protection the civil rights-era bill had previously provided. 

While it easily passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2019, it never made it to the floor of the Senate for a vote in the Republican-led Senate, stymied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

In a virtual press call to discuss the second impeachment of President Trump, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) — the new chair of the Congressional Black Caucus — named the bill among several pieces of legislation that were blocked by McConnell last session that could be brought forward in the first months of the Biden administration.

Passage of a new version of the bill will be easy enough in the House, though it will need bipartisan support in the Senate to avoid filibuster.

“We know what we have to lose,” Beatty said. “We have legislation that we will be pushing.”



Tags Biden transition Donald Trump Georgia Joe Biden John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Joyce Beatty Mitch McConnell Texas voting rights
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