Widespread opposition by Republicans to two important voting rights laws has led some Democratic lawmakers and activists to fear Congress could pass either bill this year, even as multiple state legislatures adopt restrictive voting measures.
Later this month, the Senate is expected to pass S. 1, or the People’s Law, a broad but controversial bill on voting and electoral reform. The measure was already unlikely to pass, as Democrats hold a 50-seat majority in the Senate and 60 votes are needed to move most laws forward. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin also announced on Sunday that he was opposing it, driving another nail into his legislative coffin.
But Manchin is backing another voting rights bill, which has yet to be introduced in this session of Congress – the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named after the late Congressman and civil rights icon.
This bill, also known as HR 4, would reinstate a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act repealed by the Supreme Court in 2013. This provision required certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in the vote receive an approval, known as preclearance. , the federal government before making any changes to their voting rules.
The Voting Rights Act established a formula for determining which areas should be covered by Article 5, which required some jurisdictions to submit any changes to the Department of Justice or a panel of federal judges for approval. The law was re-authorized in 2006, but the formula for dictating which jurisdictions should be subject to preclearance had not been significantly updated.
The Supreme Court struck down the formula in Shelby County v. Holder, a 5-4 decision split along ideological lines. Lawmakers “have pieced together a formula based on 40-year-old facts that has no logical connection to the present day,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his ruling.
“Congress – if it is to divide states – must identify the jurisdictions to be distinguished on a logical basis in light of current conditions. It cannot simply rely on the past,” Roberts wrote. “Our country has changed, and while any racial discrimination in the vote is too great, Congress must ensure that the legislation it passes to address this problem meets current conditions.”
The High Court did not strike down section 5, but without a formula for determining which jurisdictions are subject to preclearance, it is totally unenforceable.
The Federal Civil Rights Commission released a report in 2018 which found that several states had enacted “newly restrictive statewide election laws” following Shelby County’s ruling against Holder, including the closing polling stations, limiting early voting, purging voter lists and implementing stricter voter identification laws.
Advocates argue that it is even more important to pass both the People’s Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act due to recent efforts by Republican-led states to pass more voting measures. restrictive. In mid-May, state lawmakers enacted at least 22 bills with restrictive voting provisions in 14 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Changes to voting procedures in several states, including Georgia, Arizona and Florida, have already been enacted, while a bill revising the Texas election has been temporarily blocked.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act seeks to create a new formula for determining how jurisdictions should be subject to preclearance. But the bill must be both constitutionally sealed and provide evidence that some jurisdictions employ practices that specifically discriminate against minority voters.
A version of the bill was introduced by Democratic Congresswoman Terri Sewell in 2019 and passed in the House, but blocked in the Senate, which was then controlled by Republicans. It would have subjected a state to preclearance for 10 years if 15 or more voting rights violations had occurred in the state in the previous 25 years. A political jurisdiction would have been subject to preclearance for a period of 10 years if at least three violations of voting rights had been committed there in the previous 25 years.
Some Democrats have suggested focusing on the John Lewis Voting Rights Act instead of the Voting Rights Act, as it may be more likely to garner support from Republicans. GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski was one of the original co-sponsors of the bill when it was introduced in 2019, and is expected to support it again.
But President Nancy Pelosi dashed any hope of prioritizing John Lewis’ voting rights law in the House, saying in a letter to fellow Democrats on Tuesday that “HR 4 must pass, but it won’t be ready.” before fall, and that’s not the case. a substitute for HR 1 “, referring to the house number of the For the People Act.
“When we pass HR 4, we must do so in a constitutionally foolproof manner. This is what Congressman Butterfield and the House Judiciary Committee are working on now,” referring to the Congressman. GK Butterfield, who chairs the House Administration subcommittee overseeing federal elections.
Butterfield’s subcommittee is conducting field hearings to compile evidence of discriminatory practices which will then be shared with the Judiciary Committee, which will mark up the bill. He said in an interview with CBS News that he expected his subcommittee to complete its work and provide “thousands of pages” of evidence by the end of June.
“We have evidence that there is widespread discrimination that continues in many states across the country,” Butterfield said. He added that voting restrictions enacted in several states across the country were having a “devastating impact on democracy.” He said it was necessary to pass both the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act, claiming that “each achieves a different result”.
Senator Raphael Warnock, a Democrat from Georgia, told reporters on Tuesday that it was a “false choice” to prioritize John Lewis’ voting rights law over the People’s Law.
“I’m glad we have the John Lewis Bill, appropriately named in his honor. But let’s be clear, John Lewis has spent his last 10 years fighting for the provisions of the For the People Act,” said Warnock. “This is not a choice or a proposal. We need to pass John Lewis in order to protect voting rights. We need to pass the For the People Act to provide basic standards for our elections.”
As with the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act has very little chance of being passed in the Senate. It is highly unlikely that nine more Republicans will join all Democrats in supporting the bill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out against the bill on Tuesday, saying the bill is extremely unlikely to garner sufficient Republican support.
“There is no threat to the voting rights law,” McConnell told reporters, arguing that John Lewis’ voting rights law would give the Justice Department too much power over the states. “I think it’s unnecessary.”
Some progressives inside and outside Congress lobbied to remove filibuster, which would allow legislation to move forward with a simple majority instead of 60 votes. But ending the filibuster would require the support of the 50 Democrats, and Manchin has adamantly said he will never agree to do so.
Manchin is not alone in his opposition either. Although he and Senator Kyrsten Sinema are the most vocal opponents of eliminating filibustering, other Democrats have also privately voiced concerns that the practice will end.
With the filibuster likely to stay in place, Democrats have no choice but to continue to pressure Republicans. Although Butterfield said that “we have no reason at this time to believe that 10 or more Republicans will join the 50 Democrats” in supporting the bill, he nevertheless hoped he would be able to garner support from the same way the 2006 reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act did.
Butterfield said he expected HR 4 to be presented to the House and passed by the end of September, and then hopefully considered by the Senate by October.
“I sincerely believe there are over 10 Republicans who understand the urgency of updating the voting rights law,” Butterfield said.