House Introduces John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
John Lews (at podium) in 2019 | Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Legislation named for the late Congressman and civil rights icon whose blood was shed for voting rights was introduced on Tuesday in Congress. 

H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY). 

The legislation aims to protect voters from discrimination by restoring and strengthening key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Provisions of that landmark act were gutted by the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby v. Holder. 

Critics say it opened the floodgates of voter suppression, allowing states with histories of bigotry and discrimination to introduce laws designed to keep Black voters and communities of color from the ballot box.  In July, the nation’s highest Court rendered what some say was another blow to the Voting Rights Act with its decision in Brnovich v. DNC. 

“The right to vote is the most sacred and fundamental right we enjoy as American citizens,” said Sewell, an attorney and member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). She noted that “foot soldiers” in her native Selma, Alabama “fought, bled and died” for voting rights. “Today, old battles have become new again as we face the most pernicious assault on the right to vote in generations. It’s clear: federal oversight is urgently needed.”

Of late, some 400 bills have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide. Republicans have declared the measures are about election integrity; Democrats counter they are meant to disenfranchise Black voters and other people of color. This year alone, eighteen states have enacted at least 30 voting laws that have resulted in protest marches, civil disobedience, and arrests. 

In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said H.R. 4 aims to fight back against “an anti-democratic tide, protecting access to the ballot box for every American and carrying on the cause to which our beloved John Lewis devoted his entire life.” With the recent release of the 2020 Census data and states beginning the process of redistricting, Pelosi said lawmakers must act.

When the House returns from summer recess on August 23, the chamber expects to pass H.R. 4 ideally with bipartisan support, Speaker Pelosi said. She added that lawmakers “must also enact H.R. 1, the For The People Act, to ensure that every American has a say in the destiny of our democracy.” Debate on the measure has been blocked to date by Republican Senators. 

The John Lewis bill, retooled after previous versions stalled, comes one day after the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties held a virtual hearing to examine voting rights. 

During the August 16 proceedings, lawmakers such as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA)— both of whom have worked on the Lewis bill and were recently arrested during peaceful demonstrations on Capitol Hill—heard testimony from a host of legal experts, academics, and organizations. Those groups included The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, NAACP LDF, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, and others.  

Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, also testified at length. “The Voting Rights Act truly is, as President [Lyndon] Johnson said when he signed it into law, ‘one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom,'” she said. “It reflected bold action by Congress when bold action was needed to confront the fact that nearly a century after the Reconstruction Amendments, millions of citizens were still denied the ability to register, to vote, and to participate fully in American democracy because of their race.”  

Clarke noted that the VRA’s most innovative provisions included the appointment of federal examiners to ensure qualified people could register to vote in jurisdictions that resisted equal voting rights. And there was a preclearance provision that prevented jurisdictions from adopting new provisions to roll back hard-won gains. 

“The issues of fairness and democracy we face today are different, but equally pressing,” said Clarke. “If the end of the 20th Century was a period of dramatic expansion in voting rights, the 21st Century has, so far, been a period of rising attacks on voting rights.” She cited cutbacks to early voting periods; imposition of additional requirements to cast ballots, either at polling places or with respect to absentee ballots; and new restrictions on the right of civic groups to assist citizens in participating fully in the electoral process.

“Congressional action is necessary to prevent us from backsliding into a nation where millions of citizens, particularly citizens of color, find it difficult to register, to cast their ballot, and to elect candidates of their choice to offices from the Presidency to members of their local school board.”

Earlier this month, the House Subcommittee On Elections chaired by Rep. G. K. Butterfield (D-NC) released a report, “Voting In America: Ensuring Free And Fair Access To The Ballot.” “In writing for the majority in Shelby County, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the ‘Fifteenth Amendment is not designed to punish for the past; its purpose is to ensure a better future.’ Moreover, the Chief Justice wrote that Congress must craft a remedy that ‘makes sense in light of current conditions.’,” said Butterfield.

To collect evidence for the report, the Subcommittee held a series of five investigatory hearings with more than 35 witnesses to gather evidence of voter suppression and election administration practices that cause discriminatory harm to voters.  

The Subcommittee’s investigation found multiple examples of voting and election administration practices that exhibited significant evidence of discriminatory impact. They ranged from discriminatory voter purges to polling place closures and long wait times. 

Lawmakers told ESSENCE it’s essential that the VRA be invigorated to allow the Department of Justice and the courts to prevent discriminatory practices. Jackson Lee noted recently that Congress has the power and the obligation to protect the nation’s voting rights.

“We have no other option but to provide a safe and secure process for minorities and all Americans to vote and to stop these oppressive and suppressive voting laws.”

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