ABOVE PHOTO: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, escorts Democratic Texas state delegates during voting on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late Georgia congressman who made the issue a defining one of his career, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
By Brian Slodysko
WASHINGTON — House Democrats have passed legislation that would strengthen a landmark civil rights-era voting law weakened by the Supreme Court over the past decade, a step party leaders tout as progress in their quest to fight back against voting restrictions advanced in Republican-led states.
The bill, which is part of a broader Democratic effort to enact a sweeping overhaul of elections, was approved on a 219-212 vote, with no Republican support. Its Tuesday passage was praised by President Joe Biden, who said it would protect a “sacred right” and called on the Senate to “send this important bill to my desk.”
But the measure faces dim prospects in that chamber, where Democrats do not have enough votes to overcome opposition from Senate Republicans, who have rejected the bill as “unnecessary” and a Democratic “power grab.”
That bottleneck puts Democrats right back where they started with a slim chance of enacting any voting legislation before the 2022 midterm elections, when some in the party fear new GOP laws will make it harder for many Americans to vote.
But they still intend to try.
Speaking from the House floor, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it was imperative for Congress to counteract the Republican efforts, which she characterized as “dangerous” and “anti-democratic.”
“Democracy is under attack from what is the worst voter suppression campaign in America since Jim Crow,” Pelosi said.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late Georgia congressman who made the issue a defining one of his career, would restore voting rights protections that have been dismantled by the Supreme Court. Under the proposal, the Justice Department would again police new changes to voting laws in states that have racked up a series of “violations,” drawing them into a mandatory review process known as “preclearance.”
The practice was first put in place under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it was struck down by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court in 2013, which ruled the formula for determining which states needed their laws reviewed was outdated and unfairly punitive.
The court did, however, say that Congress could come up with a new formula, which is what the bill does.
A second ruling from the court in July made it more difficult to challenge voting restrictions in court under another section of the law.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Terri Sewell, said “old battles have indeed become new again,” enabled by the Supreme Court’s rulings.
“While literacy tests and poll taxes no longer exist, certain states and local jurisdictions have passed laws that are modern day barriers to voting,” said Sewell, an Alabama Democrat.
In many cases, the new bill wouldn’t apply to laws enacted in the years since the court’s 2013 ruling. That likely includes the wave of new Republican-backed restrictions inspired by Donald Trump’s false claims of a stolen 2020 election.
But if signed into law along with Democrats’ other election bill, the For the People Act, many of those restrictions could be neutralized — and likely prevented from getting approved again. Both laws would likely face legal challenges.
In the short term, the vote Tuesday was expected to soothe restive Democratic activists who have been frustrated by inaction on the issue in the Senate.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson said he was “encouraged” by the bill’s passage. But he also offered a thinly veiled threat, pledging to watch closely as the Senate takes it up and “keep track of every yea and every nay” vote.
“Make no mistake, we will be there, on the ground in 2022, in every state that needs a new Senator,” he said in a statement.
Democrats’ slim 50-50 majority in the Senate means they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. For months, progressives have called for scrapping the filibuster, but a number of moderate Democrats oppose the idea, denying the votes needed to do so. It’s also not clear that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, as written, would be supported by all Democrats in the Senate, where there are no votes to spare.
One provision in the bill would ban many types of voter ID laws, including those already on the books. That’s at odds with a proposal from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who is the chamber’s most conservative Democrat. He’s spent weeks working with Senate leadership to develop a more narrowly focused alternative to the For the People Act, and has specifically called for a voter ID standard that would allow for people to use a document like a utility bill.
Republicans, meanwhile, blasted the timing of the measure, noting that Pelosi called Democrats back from August recess to pass the bill, as well as to take votes on Democrats’ spending priorities, when the U.S. is dealing with its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“If there’s any moment in time to put an election aside, if there’s any moment of time to put politics aside I would have thought today was this day,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
Conservatives also criticized the bill as a departure from the 1965 voting law, which used minority turnout data as well as a place’s history of enacting discriminatory voting laws when determining which places would be subject to preclearance.
The new bill, instead, leans heavily on looser standards, such as using the number of legal settlements and consent decrees issued in voting rights cases, to pull places into preclearance.
That would, Republicans argue, play into the hands of Democrats, who have built a sophisticated and well-funded legal effort to challenge voting rules in conservative-leaning states.
Rep. Michelle Fischbach, a Minnesota Republican, predicted it would be a boon for Democratic advocacy groups and trial lawyers, who would “file as many objections as possible to manufacture litigation.”
“It empowers the attorney general to bully states and seek federal approval before making changes to their own voting laws,” she said.