Is revival ahead for voting rights legislation named for John Lewis?

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act cleared the U.S. House but it is stuck in the Senate. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said passing the law named to honor the late civil rights icon will be a top priority if he's elected. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats ranging from presidential nominee Joe Biden to party officials in Georgia are pushing for Congress to restore a key element of the Voting Rights Act as a way to honor civil rights icon John Lewis. The late Georgia congressman was a leader in getting Congress to pass the landmark law in 1965.

But so far, few Republicans seem willing to go along and legislation is stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate, even as the November elections approach.

“Back the effusive praise (for Lewis) we’ve heard since he passed, especially from many of our Republican friends, back it with some action,” Biden said last month. “Protect that sacred right that he was willing to die for. If they don’t… it’s one of the first things I’ll do as president if elected.”

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, also called on Congress to pass the updated law, so that areas that have a history of discrimination in elections would face additional scrutiny. Bills in Congress would set new rules for what’s known as preclearance, in which the permission of the Justice Department must be sought for changes in voting practices.

The U.S. House, which is controlled by Democrats, passed legislation making those changes in December on a largely party-line vote, with Lewis presiding over the chamber from the speaker’s rostrum.

Lewis was a leader in the 1965 march in Alabama from Selma to Montgomery that brought national attention to the drive to enact the Voting Rights Act. State troopers beat Lewis and hundreds of other marchers after they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge leading out of town.

After Lewis died last month, the House renamed the legislation the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.

Forty-seven senators have signed on as sponsors of a similar measure in the U.S. Senate, which has also been named after Lewis. The supporters include every Democrat, two independents and one Republican, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. But Republicans control the chamber, and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has dismissed Democrats’ concerns about voting rights.

‘Voter-suppression nonsense’

“There’s very little tangible evidence of this whole voter-suppression nonsense that the Democrats are promoting,” McConnell told the Wall Street Journal last month. “My prediction is African American voters will turn out in as large a percentage as whites, if not more so, all across the country.”

In Georgia, where voting rights have become a flashpoint in recent elections, Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate have advocated for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act.

“Voter suppression is a betrayal of the basic principles of our democracy. We will fight relentlessly to defend voting rights in Georgia. And next year we will pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act,” promised Jon Ossoff, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Sen. David Perdue, a Republican.

Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta and a Democratic candidate for the Senate seat currently held by Republican Kelly Loeffler, said the Senate should act on the legislation. “If Kelly Loeffler and Senator Perdue believe in voting rights, they ought to stand up for it, they ought to ask Mitch McConnell to at least put it up for a vote,” Warnock said earlier this month.

Perdue’s office did not indicate whether he supported the voting rights measure but provided a statement from the senator saying, “The right to vote is fundamental, and every legally eligible voter should have the opportunity to freely cast their ballot.”

Loeffler’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican who is also challenging Loeffler in an open primary in November, though, objected to the House proposal while it was being considered.

“This bill would essentially federalize state and local election laws when there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that those states or localities engaged in any discriminatory behavior when it comes to voting,” Collins said at the time. “The Supreme Court has made clear that this type of federal control over state and local elections is unconstitutional, because Congress can only do that when there’s proof of actual discrimination, which is what this bill is supposed to be about.”

Fair Fight Action, a voting rights group started by former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, and several historically Black churches (including Ebenezer), meanwhile, have asked a federal court to revive the protections, at least for elections in Georgia.

“Georgia began again to erect discriminatory voting barriers reminiscent of the Jim Crow era” in recent years, because the Voting Rights Act had been weakened, they alleged in their lawsuit.

They pointed to the use of outdated equipment at polling places, the purging of voter rolls, the closing and relocating of polling places, long lines at polling places, insufficient training of poll workers and problems with the distribution of absentee ballots.

“These problems in Georgia’s voting system are pervasive, severe, chronic and persistent. Their foreseeable, cumulative effect is to disenfranchise Georgia voters or severely burden their right to vote, with voters of color being particularly targeted and affected,” they wrote.

“Georgia voters will continue to be disenfranchised or have their voting rights severely burdened unless this Court grants the relief requested,” they added.

The part of the Voting Rights Act at the center of the controversy required election officials in certain parts of the country — mostly in the South — to get permission from the federal Justice Department or a federal court before making any significant changes in how they carry out elections.

That meant the federal government had to approve changes in electoral districts, voting hours, voter ID requirements and poll hours for nearly half a century.

Supreme Court finds act outdated

But the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the main preclearance part of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder in 2013, because it said that the criteria for which jurisdictions needed extra scrutiny was outdated.

“In 1965, the states could be divided into two groups: those with a recent history of voting tests and low voter registration and turnout, and those without those characteristics. Congress based its coverage formula on that distinction,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the five-judge majority in that decision. “Today the nation is no longer divided along those lines, yet the Voting Rights Act continues to treat it as if it were.”

The decision made it easier for states and localities to change election laws and procedures, at a time when Republicans had established clear majorities in state offices throughout the South.

Georgia officials have since closed hundreds of polling sites, even as the number of registered voters in the state has grown by 2 million.

Fair Fight Action’s lawsuit seeks to reimpose preclearance restrictions on Georgia election authorities using part of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court did not address in its ruling.

That provision requires federal approval of voting changes where plaintiffs can show that lawmakers imposed voting restrictions with discriminatory intent. No state is currently subject to that scrutiny, although Democrats and voting rights groups pushed courts to mandate the process for Texas and North Carolina late in the Obama administration.

The legislation that passed the U.S. House in December would address the Supreme Court’s concerns by establishing new rules to decide which states and localities are subject to preclearance requirements.

Under the House proposal, a state and all of its localities would have to go through federal reviews for a decade if there were 15 or more voting rights violations in the previous 25 years, or 10 or more during that time if one or more of the voting rights violations was made by the state government. The House measure would also require preclearance for areas that had significant populations of racial minorities.

The Senate legislation would work in much the same way.

“We cannot claim to honor the life of John Lewis if we refuse to carry on his life’s work. Or worse, if we stand in the way of that work,” said U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, when he introduced the legislation in July.

“Let’s do it for John,” he added. “But let’s do it not simply because it’s named after him, but because it is precisely what John would do: take action to forge a more perfect union, to protect our democracy, and, above all, to do what is right.”