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  • Writer's pictureDominique Johnson

'It is our obligation': Lawmaker pushes for bill to reinstate portions of original Voting Rights Act

Published via Hearst Television's Washington Bureau, November 2023

As voters across the country cast ballots this week, some Democrats insist voting rights for many Americans are at risk. They are working to change that with a bill named for the late Rep. John Lewis, who marched beside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, and later walked the halls of Congress.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was reintroduced in Congress this fall for the fifth time since 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the original Voting Rights Act. In those 10 years, party ideology and local laws have shifted, but the history remains the same.

More than a platform

For U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, the issue of voting rights is more than just a campaign platform. Born in Selma, a stone's throw from the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the congresswoman represents Alabama's 7th congressional district, which includes parts of Selma, Birmingham, and Montgomery, all historic cities that played pivotal roles in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

"My home church is the historic Brown Chapel AME Church where the marchers gathered to march," Sewell said. "When Bloody Sunday occurred, they retreated back to that same church, and John Lewis, and so many foot soldiers would come year after year to just remind us of the importance of what took place in Bloody Sunday and the importance of voting rights."

John Lewis was just 25 years old when he attempted to lead hundreds of marchers from Selma to Montgomery, only to be met by law enforcement on the other side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Images and videos of the violence circulated around the world, creating an immediate backlash and pushing President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the original Voting Rights Act.

In September, it was Sewell who stepped to the podium to introduce the Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the man who later became her mentor and friend.

"I get to walk the halls of Congress as Alabama's first Black congresswoman because of the Voting Rights Act, because of John Lewis and those foot soldiers. And it is our obligation, it is our duty, those of us who are direct beneficiaries of their sacrifice, to continue the fight."

Inside the bill

The bill would modernize and strengthen the provisions of the Voting Rights Act that remain in place after the 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision. In that decision, Justices found Section 4 of the original Voting Rights Act unconstitutional, making Section 5 effectively unenforceable. Section 4 contained a "coverage formula" that determined which states and local governments could be subject to oversight. Section 5 would require those districts to submit any changes to their voting procedures to the Department of Justice for approval.

In their concurring decision, justices wrote the country has changed, and there's no need for the law in modern times. Since then, however, "we're seeing a real marked uptake in the voter turnout gap between white voters and voters of color," said Daniel Weiner, director of the Elections and Government Program at the Brennan Center of Justice.

The turnout gap between white voters and voters of color in Alabama nearly doubled in the 10 years since the Shelby v. Holder decision, the center found in a study. In the same time period, 29 states have passed laws making it more difficult for people to vote, another Brennan Center study found.

"The impact can be marginal if you look at the electorate as a whole, but for particular communities, it can be extremely severe," Weiner said. "And the worry, of course, it is the exact same communities who were historically targeted for voting discrimination."

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would make some kinds of voting changes subject to pre-clearance nationwide because those changes are so often discriminatory. That includes things like changing the boundaries of a district to remove minorities from the district or making it easier to remove voters from the rolls where there's a large minority population. The bill also includes a new formula to determine which districts have to submit changes to the Department of Justice for pre-clearance before they can make their own changes to local voting procedure, and allows voters to sue to block laws they believe are discriminatory.

Behind the voting rights bill battle

After its initial passage, Congress amended the original Voting Rights Act act five times to expand its protections over the years, most recently in 2006 under President George W. Bush. Each time, those changes were passed into law with overwhelming bipartisan support.

In their Shelby v. Holder decision, the Supreme Court left an opening for Congress to re-write the provision, but Republicans argue the pre-clearance requirement amounts to a federal takeover of elections.

In 2021, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed the House but stalled in the Senate after failing to receive enough votes to invoke cloture. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the bill a "power grab" in a speech on the Senate floor. Arguments against the bill have largely focused on the right of states to govern their own elections. During that same debate, South Dakota Sen. John Thune said the bill, "would impose one size fits all federal regulations on elections."

Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the U.S. Justice Department, points out that if states want to increase voter turnout, they need to work to increase confidence in election security.

"I think the reform that is needed in the states is reforms to improve the integrity of the election process," he said. "That's something that's very important to public confidence. And, again, a good example of that is voter ID."

What comes next

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has been designated H.R. 14 in the 118th Congress and has 214 cosponsors, all Democrats. While the bill has been referred to the House Committee on the Judiciary, it is unclear when, or even if, the bill will move forward.

The bill was written by Sewell, civil rights activists and voting rights activists, but Sewell said she is willing to sit down with Republicans and work on a compromise.

“It is very much the bill that we want to see,” Sewell said, “But I think that there's not a Democrat that you could talk to that wouldn't be willing to compromise in order to get pre-clearance.”

The congresswoman pointed out there are several lawmakers still serving in the Senate who voted to reauthorize the 1965 Voting Rights Act but refused to vote for cloture on her bill in 2021.

We reached out to all of those senators, asking why they voted the way they did, if there are any changes that could be made to make them change their vote, and what their views are on federal election laws. We did not hear back.

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