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H.R. 4 carries forward the legacy of Congressman John Lewis

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Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis. 

On Aug. 28, 1963, thousands of Americans came to our nation’s capital for the March on Washington. Inspired by leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis, they sought to bring the country closer to realizing our Founders’ assertion that all of us are equal. It was the pinnacle of the civil rights movement.

That movement led to landmark civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act. The law made it possible for people such as my grandparents to vote. After enduring decades of obstacles in Jim Crow South Carolina, this law finally represented progress to them and so many others.

Recently, thousands of Americans across the country gathered to mark the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington and renew the call for updated voting rights legislation. On the eve of that day, GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel published an op-ed in The Hill criticizing H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

This split screen is telling. Americans remain steadfast in their commitment to the right to vote. They know that people like Congressman John Lewis bled to secure that sacred right. They’ve heard the stories from their elders about the dogs, the billy clubs and the water hoses turned upon Black Americans. They know how far we’ve come, and they never want to go back.

Chair McDaniel and the Republican Party, on the other hand, appear to have lost their way. They’ve apparently decided that voting rights no longer serve them.

For decades, voting rights were supported by Democrats and Republicans. Broad, bipartisan majorities of Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act five times. I worked alongside Congressman Lewis and members of both parties to pass the last reauthorization with overwhelming support. At the state level, moderate Republicans such as former Michigan Gov. George Romney, McDaniel’s grandfather, championed civil rights and marched alongside other activists. Leaders set politics aside to affirm the sacred right to vote. 

Today’s Republican Party, led by Donald Trump, Ronna McDaniel, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have trampled that legacy. And while McDaniel makes a variety of claims to avoid owning up to her party’s anti-voting rights stance, her argument is lacking.

Her first argument centers on the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act. She portrays it as outdated and unnecessary but fails to state the true purpose of the provision — to ensure equity for voters of color.

Preclearance applied to states that, over decades, had perfected the art of disenfranchising voters of color via ruthless but superficially neutral tools such as literacy tests and grandfather clauses. The preclearance requirement mandated that these states get approval from the Justice Department before changing voting laws. It ensured that they couldn’t just replace old Jim Crow voter suppression tactics with new ones. 

Preclearance worked. Black voter registration and turnout rates soared in covered states before it was struck down by a conservative majority of the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder. The majority reasoned that preclearance had been so effective at creating equity in voting rights that the problem had been solved. But preclearance had barely gone away before voter suppression returned with a vengeance.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained the absurdity of the Shelby County decision well. She said, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would modernize and restore preclearance. It would prevent voting laws that unevenly burden voters of color. It would take important steps to limit gerrymandering and make sure that politicians don’t get to handpick their voters and entrench their power. In short, it would be the most significant federal expansion of voting rights in a generation. 

The Republicans fail to mention any of this when they rail against it. McCarthy and McConnell omit the fact that they once supported the Voting Rights Act and provisions such as preclearance. McConnell once said “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” when talking about the Voting Rights Act. Now, he’s against passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and restoring the law to its former strength.

So what’s different? Voting rights remain urgently important. All that has changed is the Republican Party’s commitment to that right. They’ll still call Lewis a hero. They’ll still send the annual tweet honoring Dr. King. But their actions no longer match their words.

They are responsible for a rising tide of voter suppression across the country, one that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act could halt. Republicans don’t oppose this bill on principle; they apparently oppose it because it threatens their positions of power. They see the diverse, growing coalition of supporters we’ve built and that their power and influence are shrinking.  

But Americans are committed to voting rights — a majority support provisions of H.R. 4, despite what McDaniel claims.

Democrats support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act because we believe in the strength of our policies and trust the judgment of the American people. We want all voters to have a chance to judge us on what we deliver. Democrats are committed to making sure every voice is heard and every vote counts. We know the American people are, too. That’s why we won’t just talk about the legacy of John Lewis — we’ll act to carry it forward. We will fight to make sure H.R. 4 becomes law. 

Jaime Harrison is chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Follow him on Twitter @harrisonjaime.

Tags Donald Trump Jaime Harrison John Lewis Kevin McCarthy Mitch McConnell preclearance Republican efforts to restrict voting following the 2020 presidential election Ronna McDaniel Ruth Bader Ginsburg Voter suppression Voting Rights Act

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