Republicans argue John Lewis voting bill violates principles of federalism, exceeds congressional power

Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.) addresses reporters during a press conference on July 1 to introduce legislation to limit Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's donations.
Greg Nash

A group of 15 Republican lawmakers are urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to not bring the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act up for consideration on the floor, arguing that the legislation “violates the principles of federalism and exceeds the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution.”

The coalition, led by Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.), the co-chair of the House Election Integrity Caucus, penned a letter to Pelosi on Monday, outlining their qualms with the legislation and asking the speaker to not bring up the bill for a vote, a move that is unlikely considering that Democrats, who are in the majority, are committed to passing voting rights reform.

The House introduced the legislation, known formally as H.R. 4, last week, with hopes it would pass this week before the chamber goes on recess until mid-September.

The GOP lawmakers wrote that the legislation “would federalize our election system, give more power to unelected career bureaucrats in Washington, and unconstitutionally erode the ability of states to oversee elections.”

The bill, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), calls for reinstating the oversight power of the Voting Rights Act, which has been pared down in recent years.

The bill previously required that states and jurisdictions with past instances of racial discrimination — chiefly in the Jim Crow South — receive approval from the Department of Justice (DOJ) before enacting any changes to voting procedures.

In 2013, however, the Supreme Court ruled in the case Shelby County v. Holder that the formula that established such a threshold was outdated and unconstitutional. 

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), when she announced the introduction of the bill last week on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, said the new formula now only factors in the previous 25 years of voting misconduct in states and localities.

The Republicans in their letter on Monday specifically took issue with changes to voting procedures needing DOJ approval, writing that such a policy would “unconstitutionally expand the federal government’s ability to reject commonsense reforms enacted at the state level related to things like voter ID laws, absentee voting, maintenance of voter rolls, the location of polling places, and the hours of operation.”

The lawmakers also rebutted Democrats’ claims that “our current system suppresses minority voters,” citing data from the Census Bureau which found that the 2020 election saw the highest voter turnout of the 21st century, and that minority groups registered to vote and turned out in the highest numbers ever seen.

“Democrats continue to claim that our current system suppresses minority voters, and that new legislation is needed that provides the federal government with even more expansive powers over state authorities. But this is just false,” they wrote.

The Republicans called on Pelosi to work across the aisle to draft “targeted election reforms that respect our Constitution as well as the primary role of states in administering elections.”

The Biden administration signaled its support for H.R. 4 on Monday, with the Office of Management and Budget writing in statement that “Some have sought to delegitimize the [November 2020] election and make it harder to vote, in many cases by targeting the methods of voting that made it possible for many voters to participate.”

“These efforts violate the most basic ideals of America,” the office added.

The push for voting rights reform on Capitol Hill comes after a number of GOP-led states have enacted sweeping legislation that many say restricts access to ballot boxes.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, as of July 14 at least 18 states enacted 30 laws that restrict access to the vote this year.

While the bill is likely to pass the House, it is unlikely to clear the Senate’s 50-50 political party split without nixing the filibuster, which is unlikely given opposition to removing the legislative hurdle by two Democrats.


Tags claudia tenney Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Nancy Pelosi Terri Sewell

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