House Democrats introduce John Lewis voting rights bill

Bonnie Cash

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — one the most highly touted Democratic priorities this session — was introduced Tuesday, with the expectation that it will pass through the House when the lower chamber reconvenes next week.

The legislation, named after late Georgia congressman John Lewis (D), is likely Democrats’ last chance to strengthen federal voting rights mandates before the end of the year.

More sweeping legislation — H.R. 1, the For the People Act — looks increasingly like a lost cause in the evenly split Senate given broad GOP opposition.

“With the attack on the franchise escalating and states beginning the process of redistricting, we must act,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement on the Lewis measure. “When the House returns on August 23rd, Democrats plan to pass H.R. 4 – and we hope it can secure the bipartisan support this vital legislation deserves.”

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) announced the introduction of the legislation in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where Lewis and other civil rights activists were viciously beaten by state and local police in 1965 on what is known as “Bloody Sunday.”

Lewis’s skull was fractured in the brutality, and images of Bloody Sunday were viewed by television audiences nationwide, becoming a major flashpoint in U.S. history.

Five months after the attack, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was only made possible because of the personal sacrifices of amazing foot soldiers, many known and unknown, right here on this bridge, in my hometown 56 years ago,” Sewell, a Selma native, said.

The newly introduced legislation will seek to reinstate the oversight power of the Voting Rights Act, which has been cut down in recent years.

Specifically, the federal preclearance outlined in Sections 4 and 5 of the bill has been cut down by the Supreme Court. It required states and jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination — largely the Jim Crow South — to gain approval from the Department of Justice before implementing any change to voting procedure.

In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Shelby County v. Holder that the formula that created the preclearance threshold was outdated and therefore unconstitutional.

Chief Justice John Roberts made it clear at the time, though, that Congress had the authority to update the formula.

Sewell explained that the revised formula now takes into account only the past 25 years of voting misconduct from states and localities.

“If a state or jurisdiction has had 10 or more violations — including a statewide violation — or 15 violations with no statewide violation, then that state would be considered a covered jurisdiction,” the Alabama congresswoman said.

The bill will also seek to strengthen Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which advocates and Democrats say was weakened by a Supreme Court decision at the start of July in which a pair of Arizona voting rights restrictions were upheld.

Section 2, which was strengthened by Congress in the 1980s, prohibits states or other jurisdictions from implementing voting laws that discriminate against Americans on the basis of race, color or membership in a language-minority group.

Previously, plaintiffs had to either prove discriminatory intent on the part of lawmakers or that the law’s impact is discriminatory.

In dissent, Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote: “What is tragic here is that the Court has (yet again) rewritten — in order to weaken — a statute that stands as a monument to America’s greatness, and protects against its basest impulses.”

The court’s decision came as nearly 20 GOP-controlled states have passed at least 30 laws that throttle access to the ballot box in some form. Hundreds of voting restriction proposals have been brought forth since the beginning of the year.

Democrats have asserted that both H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 would combat the state bills, but at the moment, there isn’t a clear path forward for either piece of legislation.

Both bills fall well short of the 10 Republican Senate votes needed to overcome the chamber’s filibuster, although moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have attempted to foster bipartisan support for H.R. 1.

Democrats’ other options would be to either completely nix the filibuster or create an exception for legislation that pertains to voting rights that would allow the bills to pass by a simple majority vote.

While exceptions to the filibuster do exist, Manchin and fellow moderate Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D- Ariz.) have blanched at both possible solutions.

Tags Alabama Elena Kagan Joe Manchin John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act Kyrsten Sinema Lisa Murkowski Nancy Pelosi Terri Sewell voting rights
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