House approves John Lewis voting rights measure
The House approved the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act on Tuesday in a party-line vote, kicking the legislation to the Senate — where it faces longer odds of passage.
The bill was approved 219-212, with zero Republicans voting for it.
“Nothing is more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote.” Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), a main sponsor of the bill, said from the floor during debate on the legislation.
“It was in my district that ordinary Americans peacefully protested for the equal right to vote for all Americans,” Sewell noted, referring to the struggle of the late Lewis and other civil rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge 56 years ago.
In March 1965, a 26-year-old Lewis and company were brutally beaten by state and local police on what is now 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 (VRA) into law.
Lewis died last summer after representing a Georgia district for more than 30 years in the House.
“All battles have indeed become new again,” Sewell continued.
“While literacy tests and poll tax no longer exist, certain states and local jurisdictions have passed laws that are modern-day barriers to voting. So as long as voter suppression exists, the need for full protections of the VRA will continue,” Sewell said.
The bill approved Tuesday centers around restoring the federal preclearance originally instituted by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was eroded by a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
The preclearance 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 the landmark Shelby v. Holder case, the Supreme Court ruled that the formula used to dictate the preclearance threshold was outdated and therefore unconstitutional. However, at the time, Chief Justice John Roberts left the door open for Congress to draft an updated formula that would more accurately reflect the status of voting rights around the country.
Also included in the bill is a booster for Section 2 of the VRA following a July decision from the country’s top court that upheld a pair of Arizona voting restrictions.
While Sections 4 and 5 outline the preclearance, Section 2 outlaws states and other jurisdictions from implementing voting procedures that discriminate against Americans on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group.
Voting rights are at the forefront of the national political debate after last year’s election, and a sharp partisan divide has emerged over the once-bipartisan issue.
Nearly 20 GOP-controlled states have passed at least 30 laws this year that throttle access to the ballot box in some form; in total, hundreds of voting restriction proposals have been brought forth in the past eight months.
Republicans have cast the state measures as steps to stop voter fraud, but opponents have noted that voter fraud is relatively rare and that the measures will likely depress the votes of predominantly Democratic voters, including minority groups.
Unsurprisingly, GOP members grilled the Democratic bill.
“I hope my colleagues and the American people will see this bill for what it is: a partisan power grab, which circumvents the people to ensure one-party rule,” Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) countered during debate.
Some conservatives decided to shift the conversation to Democrats’ handling of Afghanistan, a situation that has forced the White House to play major defense.
“Thousands of Americans stranded in Afghanistan, fearing for their lives, and Democrats are focused on passing legislation to make sure states can’t require photo ID,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said.
Earlier in the afternoon, during debate on the procedure of the vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she hoped “there would be some level of bipartisanship” on the bill.
But any level of bipartisanship was unexpected given the poisoned relationship between Republicans and Democrats in the House, much of it spurred by the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and the votes by a majority of the House GOP conference after the attack to toss out the results of the presidential election in certain states.
In the Senate, the Lewis bill faces a filibuster, meaning it will need 10 GOP senators to back it to get through the chamber.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), a centrist Republican, was an initial co-sponsor of a different version of the bill in the last session of Congress and issued a joint statement with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in May urging bipartisan support on the measure, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has described H.R. 4 as “unnecessary.”
The bill is seen as having a better chance of moving forward than a more sweeping voting rights measure known as the For the People Act.
Either legislation could get to President Biden’s desk if all 50 Democrats agreed to make an exception to the filibuster, but Manchin and fellow centrist Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are against any kind of filibuster reform.