With the banging of the gavel, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a “foot soldier” on the front lines in the civil rights battle for more than 50 years, announced Friday passage of legislation to restore protections guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which had been gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling. The Democratic-controlled House applauded the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act, or H.R. 4, to preserve what Lewis calls “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in our Democratic society” but now must prepare to fight for approval from the GOP-dominated US Senate and signature of President Trump for the bill to become law. In fact, the White House has already made veto threats.
Further indication of such obstacles to enactment is the fact that the 228-187 vote for passage of H.R. 4 was along intractable partisan lines with just a sole Republican Pennsylvania Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick backing the measure.
The Dems seek passage of the law as the 2020 election cycle presents an opportunity for the party to gain control of the executive and legislative branches by capturing the White House and US Senate while maintaining its leadership of the House. The party is keenly aware that the black vote represents a critical factor for victory in the presidential election and key congressional contests.
“Voting rights are under attack in America,” Lewis has often asserted in speeches and writings. “ Quietly, gradually, state-by-state, the right to vote – a right that many people died to secure – is being taken away.” He points to The Brennan Center report revealing voting law changes nationwide will make it much more difficult for over 5 million voters to exercise their franchise.
Deepening Partisan Divide
During the last three sessions of Congress, Rep.Terri Sewell (D-AL) has introduced the Voting Rights Advancement Act to update the formula used to establish federally-mandated preclearance of voter registration practices in certain states, require public notice of such modifications, and enable the US attorney general to send federal observers to any state for procedural review. In her passionate YouTube address, Sewell, who represents the Alabama district that includes Selma’s notorious Edmund Pettis Bridge – the historic landmark that served as the turning point in the original act’s passage — stressed the need for “keeping up the drumbeat” and voters to apply pressure on members of the upper chamber of Congress to move forward this year legislation so many African Americans “fought, bled and some even died for.”
“HR 4 will restore the full protections of the VRA and stop the worst voter suppression tactics before they even began,” she further asserts.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), sponsor of the companion bill in the US Senate, has insisted that Majority leader Mitch McConnell bring up the bill before the body to “undo the damage done by the Shelby County decision,” according to a report in Politico.
News reports confirm greater entrenched GOP opposition. For example, House Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins (R-GA) maintained that Republicans have largely dismissed the legislation as “a messaging bill.” He told Politico prior to the vote that “We do not in this body vote on ideas. We do not vote on thoughts. We vote on words on paper. And the words on paper here do not fulfill what is being said about this bill.”
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), chairwoman of a House subcommittee on elections and Congressional Black Caucus member, countered: “If it were just a messaging bill, I will have wasted ten months’ worth of time.” In fact, she held nine hearings around the country on voter access, producing a 144-page report to validate an updated VRA.
Republicans further denounced the bill by charging that it exceeds reinstatement of the preclearance provision by promoting federal overreach of states’ rights through prohibition of local election practices like voter ID laws.
Democrats, on the other hand, argue that such procedures as being discriminatory and that the need for election reforms were crucial given that a number of the 14 states and jurisdictions previously subject to preclearance have enacted new laws over the past several years that effectively suppress voter access at the ballot box.
The partisan divide has deepened as the debate over such issues has grown more vitriolic in the past 13 years. In 2006, the last time VRA was renewed, both chambers of Congress passed the measure with overwhelming bipartisan support and a Republican president, George W. Bush signed it into law.
Restoring Voting Rights
The new bill responds to the Supreme Court decision six years ago that effectively dismantled VRA. In the 5-4 decision on Shelby County v. Holder, the Supremes struck down a key provision in Section 4, stripping the VRA formula that Congress has repeatedly reauthorized to determine all or some jurisdictions of states — many located in the South — that would require federal approval before changing election laws. States with a history of discriminatory practices like literacy tests and poll taxes were forced to gain preclearance by the feds before making any adjustments. Chief Justice John Roberts, a long-time VRA critic, wrote in Shelby, which challenged the 2006 re-authorization of Sections 4 and 5: “Voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that…The question is whether the Act’s extraordinary measures, including its disparate treatment of the States, continue to satisfy constitutional requirements.”
Asserting that the formula used “40-year-old data to police modern voter discrimination,” the chief justice further concluded: “While any racial discrimination in voting is too much, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to remedy that problem speaks to current conditions. So the court’s decision still gave Congress the leeway to update the formula with fresh research and bolster oversight of jurisdictions with a persistent and recent track record of discrimination.”
Ironically, the high court decision was made during the second term of the first black US President Barack Obama, who voiced his disappointment in “invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.” As a remedy, he advocated for immediate congressional action.
Sewell stated that “since the Shelby decision, nearly two-dozen states have implemented restrictive voter ID laws and previously-covered states have closed or consolidated polling places, shortened early voting and imposed other measures that restrict voting.”
Under her measure, a multi-prong system would be put in place to determine which states must preclear election changes with the Department of Justice. It would target “known discriminatory practices”, including the designation of at-large districts, inadequate multilingual voting materials, cuts to polling places and modifications to the oversight of voter registration rolls, among other areas.
The law defines voting rights breach based on violations of 14th or 15th Amendment and provisions of VRA, objections made by the US attorney general or court-ordered consent decrees, settlements or other agreements. In fact, Sewell says H.R. 4 provides three provisions tied to being “covered” jurisdictions:
- States with a history of 15 or more violations at any level in the previous 25 years;
- States with a history of 10 or more violations, if one violation occurs at the state level in the previous 25 years;
- Political subdivisions or localities with 3 or more violations in that subdivision in the previous 25 years.
Fighting For The Franchise
The bill has been backed by a multicultural coalition, including some 60 national organizations like the NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, to name a few.
Progressive political leaders and civil rights activists, however, are not just banking on passage of H.R. 4 to ensure that African Americans – a critical voting bloc for Dems – will be able to gain access to the ballot box in 2020. They are engaging in a series of strategic and legal means to fight for the right for blacks to exercise their franchise. The most vocal proponents have been Obama, former Attorney General Eric Holder, and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
Still, Lewis, who was severely beaten during “Bloody Sunday” in Selma as he and other protesters sought passage of VRA in 1965, view enactment of the new law as crucial for ongoing political empowerment: “We’ve come too far, and made too much progress to go back. With this piece of legislation, we will continue to go forward.”