According to an article from the May 5, 2021 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “In recent months, we’ve seen politicians at every level of government increasingly work to suppress the vote in communities of color. In the wake of the January 6th insurrection, hundreds of voter suppression bills are being promoted . . .” According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states had introduced roughly 2,950 election-related bills by late April.
Some voter suppression bills have already been signed into law. This past Thursday the governor of Florida signed Senate Bill 90 into law, following Iowa, Arkansas, Montana, Utah, and Georgia—states that have already enacted new restrictive voting laws. The most salient wave of restrictive legislation is now moving through legislatures in Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire, and Texas. The Texas House approved a bill just the day before yesterday.
But the late, great Congressman John Lewis was among the most persistent and unwavering voices in the fight for Black voting rights. He shed his blood and dedicated his life to ensuring that all Americans, especially voters of color, were able to participate in America’s electoral process. Before his death in July 2020, he said, “A rampant war is being waged against minorities’ voting rights . . . It’s a shame and a disgrace.”
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act (also known as H.R.4) is proposed legislation that was introduced in the 116th Congress. The legislation would restore and strengthen parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, certain portions of which were struck down by the United States Supreme Court in 2013 by Shelby County v. Holder. Particularly, it would bring back the Voting Rights Act of 1965's requirement that certain states pre-clear certain changes to their voting laws with the federal government.
SUMMARY OF LEGISLATIVE HISTORY
The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Terri Sewell on February 26, 2019. It passed the House of Representatives (228-187) as the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 on December 6, 2019. All Democrats voted in favor of the legislation, and all but one Republican voted against it. The bill was introduced in the Senate as S.4253 by Senator Patrick Leahy after John Lewis' death in July 2020. The Republican-held Senate did not bring the bill up for a vote. The bill was renamed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act one week after Lewis’ death in July, 2020.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act has not yet been introduced in the 117th Congress. Rep. Terri Sewell stated that the House will hold many hearings to be able to defend the bill from any court challenges, and that the bill probably won’t be introduced before May or June 2021. She doesn't believe the bill will be voted on until September 2021. The bill is expected to face a major hurdle of getting through the Senate.
On June 25, 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down a key provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (also known as the VRA) in the case of Shelby County v. Holder. Section 5 of the VRA stated that eligible districts needed to seek approval from the federal government to implement certain changes to election laws and procedures. Section 4(b) defined eligible districts as places that had literacy tests (intended to disenfranchise racial minorities) in place as of November 1, 1964 and a turnout of less than 50% in the 1964 presidential election. To receive clearance for new election procedures, the district would have to prove to either a three-judge panel of a Washington, D.C. Court or the U.S. Attorney General that the new procedure would not negatively impact the right to vote on the basis of race or other minority status. After the VRA was passed, minority turnout for elections increased.
The Supreme Court ruling caused many states to begin putting in new restrictive voting laws. Less than 24 hours after the Court’s decision, Texas announced it would put in place a strict voter I.D. law. North Carolina immediately passed a bill which included a strict photo I.D. requirement, eliminated same-day voting registration, and shortened the early voting period, among other restrictive policies. One policy in particular banned early voting on Sundays, which North Carolina admitted in court attracted higher numbers of Black voters. The North Carolina bill was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals on the basis that the law was designed to "target African-Americans with almost surgical precision."
The Supreme Court decision also led to an increase in voters being purged from voter rolls. Research from the Brennan Center for Justice suggests that some 2 million more people were purged from voter rolls between 2012 and 2016 than would have been if Section 5 of the VRA had been left in place.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act was written to prevent more restrictive laws from being passed without federal pre-clearance. Lewis was an adamant supporter of legislation to fix the Voting Rights Act gutted by the Supreme Court. That Court decision “destroyed what I considered to be the heart and soul of the Voting Rights Act . . . ” he wrote to Attorney General William Barr.
Broadening the Scope of the Courts
The John Lewis Voting Right Act would broaden cases in which the U.S. Attorney General may send federal observers to jurisdictions the courts have deemed necessary, as well as allow the courts to block all new election policy in a wider range of circumstances. It does so by adding, to portions of the VRA that say "violations of the 14th and 15th Amendment," language to include "violations of this Act, or violations of any Federal law that prohibits discrimination in voting on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group."
Restoring Federal Pre-Clearance
The next portion of the act reinstates the federal pre-clearance requirement for new election procedures in certain states by creating a new formula that satisfies the Shelby decision. The act's new formula would subject jurisdictions to the requirement:
- Any state that has had 15 or more voting rights violations within the last 25 years.
- Any state that has had 10 or more voting rights violations and at least 1 of those violations were committed by the state itself (as opposed to a jurisdiction within the state) within the last 25 years.
- Any subdivision in a state that has had 3 or more voting rights violations within the last 25 years would also be subject to the requirement.
The act counts any of the following as a voting rights violation:
- A standing court ruling that has found denial or abridgement of the right to vote on account of race, color, or being in a "language minority group" in a way that violates the 14th or 15th amendments anywhere within the state or subdivision.
- A standing court decision that has found that an election law or procedure that was either enacted or would have been enacted would have abridged the right to vote on account of race, color, or being in a "language minority group" in a way that violates the act itself anywhere in a state or subdivision.
- A standing court decision that denied a declaratory request and prevented any new election policy or procedure from taking effect anywhere within the state or subdivision.
- The Attorney General has a standing objection that prevented any new election policy or procedure from taking effect anywhere within the state or subdivision.
- A settlement or consent decree that caused the state or subdivision to alter or abandon a voting policy, if the policy was challenged because it abridged the right to vote on the account of race, color, or "membership in a language minority" in a way that violates the act itself or the 14th or 15th amendments.
The act states that the Attorney General will make the determinations as early as can be practiced within a calendar year, and keep an updated list of all voting rights violations. The determination becomes effective when it is published in the Federal Register.
For a comparison of states requiring pre-clearance at the time of the Shelby County decision with those which would require it under the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, click here.
Expanding Covered Practices
The bill would also expand the changes to election procedure that would require federal pre-clearance (i.e., the percentage of the population that is considered a racial minority).
Election Method and Jurisdiction Boundary Change
Any state or subdivision that has:
- Two or more racial or language minorities that each represent 20% or more of the voting-age population.
- A single language minority that represents 20% or more of the voting-age population on Native-American lands that are located entirely or partially in the state or subdivision.
Must get federal pre-clearance before implementing any of the following policies:
- Changes to the number of seats that are elected at-large in the state or subdivision.
- Conversion of one or more seats from a single-member district to one or more at-large districts or to multi-member districts.
- Any change (or series of changes) to the boundaries of a jurisdiction that reduces by 3 or more percentage points the proportion of the voting-age population of any one racial or language minority group.
While the news is filled with stories of restrictive voting rights bills, it is important to note that Virginia and Kentucky have each passed a law expanding options for casting a ballot.
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“Lewis was a constant in the tough, unending battle to make American the democracy it struggles to be,” according to an article in The Washington Post.
People gathered yesterday around the country to ignite public support for critical reforms to ease access to the ballot, end the era of big money in our politics, ensure that a majority rules, and demand that Congress pass House Resolution 4.
According to Derrick Johnson, President of the NAACP, “We should be working to expand access to voting to strengthen our democracy as opposed to restricting and limiting the American people’s sacred right to participate in elections.” John R. Lewis believed that “Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society.” Remember his words: “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”