voting rights

Updated John Lewis Voting Rights Act Is Introduced

Alabama congresswoman Terri Sewell, chief sponsor of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

As the wall of Senate Republican (plus Democrat Joe Manchin) opposition to the sweeping For the People Act (S. 1) voting-rights measure hardens, congressional Democrats are moving forward with narrower legislation.

Alabama congresswoman Terri Sewell on Tuesday introduced in the House the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act aimed at restoring the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to how it existed before the Supreme Court gutted its key enforcement provision in 2013. Standing in front of the Edmund Pettis Bridge, where Lewis and other civil-rights activists were brutally attacked by Alabama state troopers as the whole world watched, a moment that inspired the passage of the original VRA, Sewell hailed the “personal sacrifices of amazing foot soldiers, many known and unknown, right here on this bridge in my hometown 56 years ago.”

An earlier version of the bill passed in the House in 2019, but it was updated in part to reduce its vulnerability to another court challenge on the grounds of having outdated data on discriminatory voting practices, which was the basis for the 2013 Supreme Court decision. The revised bill was also worded to address a more recent SCOTUS decision that made the use of lawsuits against election officials under Section 2 of the VRA more difficult.

This bill would not deal systematically with many of the problems addressed in S. 1, such as campaign-finance abuses, partisan gerrymandering, or restrictions on voter registration and voting by mail. It would, however, in the covered jurisdictions, stop any changes in law and policy governing voting and elections (including redistricting maps) until they can be reviewed for possible dilution of minority voting opportunities or representation. As I noted earlier this year, it would at a minimum put an amber light on the implementation of many of the voter-suppression laws being passed by Republican state legislatures in the former Confederacy:

The John Lewis Act would simply stop future laws and procedural changes from taking effect without a Justice Department preclearance. It’s hard to know exactly which laws and procedural changes would and would not pass muster, and it’s worth considering that a future Republican administration might very well reverse pro-voting-rights guidance set down by the Biden administration.

But without question, the John Lewis Act would slow down, and might well inhibit, voter-suppression activity.

Unfortunately, the John Lewis Act has the same political problem as the For the People Act: a lack of the Republican support necessary to overcome a certain filibuster in the Senate. When Manchin made his version of the John Lewis Act the centerpiece of an attempted grand compromise voting-rights bill, Republican senators other than Lisa Murkowski shot it down quickly. But precisely because it simply reestablishes what was once the near-universally supported law of the land, it is likely a better vehicle than S. 1 to shame the GOP and rally stronger long-term support for enforceable democracy.

Democrats Update the John Lewis Voting Rights Act