House Democrats on Tuesday unanimously introduced the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill named for the late civil rights leader that would restore and expand the protections of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court’s Republican-appointed majority gutted in two infamous rulings in 2013 and 2021.
The House had previously passed a version of the legislation in 2021, but it failed to advance in the Senate last year when Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema sided with every Republican to support a filibuster against it.
Once again sponsored by Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, the revised bill would establish a new formula to determine which states and localities must “preclear” any proposed changes to election laws and procedures with the Justice Department or a federal court. The previous preclearance regime, which was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court, applied to states and localities—largely in the South—with a history of racial discrimination in their voting laws. Its dismantling sparked a wave of GOP-backed voter suppression laws, many of which have targeted people of color.
Under the new setup, any state where officials have committed at least 15 voting rights violations over a 25-year period would be required to obtain preclearance for 10 years. And if the state itself, rather than localities within the state, is responsible for the violations, it would take only 10 violations to place it under preclearance. In addition, any particular locality could individually be subjected to preclearance if it commits at least three violations. (In 2021, 11 states would have been covered under this formula. It’s likely that the same states would be impacted should this latest version of the bill pass, though the list could change.)
This year’s bill also adds provisions to reverse the harms from another Supreme Court ruling, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, a 2021 case that saw the court’s far-right majority significantly increase the level of discriminatory effects that plaintiffs must demonstrate to show that a voting law violates the VRA. That decision effectively gave lawmakers or officials who enact such rules great deference in the interest of preventing supposed voter fraud—even without any evidence of such fraud.
To do this, the bill would require courts to consider several factors, including whether an election procedure discriminates against voters of color for the purpose of helping a political party. This would mitigate against officials trying to defend illegal racial discrimination by claiming partisanship as their motivation.
It would also remove other requirements imposed by Brnovich that had no basis in the VRA’s text and made it significantly harder to prove violations by establishing voting procedures as they existed in 1982 as a baseline. At that time, for instance, mail voting was far less common, meaning that under Brnovich, attempts to restrict it now receive less scrutiny. That, however, turns the VRA on its head: Amendments passed in 1982 were designed to make it easier to challenge racist voting procedures, not lock in the existing landscape as some sort of default.
With Republicans in control of the House and Senate Democrats still reliant on Manchin and Sinema—who both remain averse to majority rule—this bill won’t become law this session. However, if Joe Biden wins reelection in 2024 and Democrats both regain the House and win at least 50 Senate seats without needing Manchin or Sinema, the revamped John Lewis bill would have a path to passage.
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