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Strengthening the Voting Rights Act

Congress must pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to strengthen this essential law and restore its core protections.

Overview

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 to protect against race discrim­in­a­tion in voting. The VRA was later amended to protect against discrim­in­a­tion against language minor­it­ies as well. This moment­ous piece of legis­la­tion deliv­ers on the prom­ise of the 14th and 15th Amend­ments that every citizen is entitled to an equal oppor­tun­ity to parti­cip­ate in our demo­cracy.

But that right is under threat, partic­u­larly because of two Supreme Court decisions. Section 5 of the VRA requires states and local­it­ies with a history of discrim­in­a­tion to obtain approval from the Depart­ment of Justice or a court before chan­ging voting rules (a process known as “preclear­ance”).

In 2013, the Supreme Court held in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula for determ­in­ing which juris­dic­tions were subject to preclear­ance was uncon­sti­tu­tional because it was outdated, evis­cer­at­ing a key provi­sion of the VRA. This decision ushered in a wave of efforts in states previ­ously covered under Section 5 to restrict voting rights, leav­ing to Congress the respons­ib­il­ity of draft­ing an updated cover­age formula to restore the force of Section 5.

In July 2021, the Supreme Court made it more diffi­cult to chal­lenge laws that restrict voting rights under Section 2 of the VRA. In Brnovich v. Demo­cratic National Commit­tee, the Court ruled that two Arizona voting laws did not burden voters of color enough to consti­tute a viol­a­tion of VRA. In so doing, the Court largely ignored the long­stand­ing consid­er­a­tions that courts have relied on to determ­ine whether discrim­in­a­tion exists under Section 2, which allows voters to sue to block discrim­in­at­ory voting laws. Instead, the Court created new “guide­posts” to adju­dic­ate Section 2 claims, such as whether a state provides more oppor­tun­it­ies to vote now than the state did when Section 2 was last amended in 1982.

These Supreme Court decisions, along with the wave of restrict­ive voting legis­la­tion that passed this year, under­scores the urgent need for Congress to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act. The bill, named for the late civil rights cham­pion and congress­man, was passed by the House in August and is now before the Senate.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would modern­ize and revital­ize the VRA by strength­en­ing legal protec­tions against discrim­in­at­ory voting policies. First, the bill restores what the Supreme Court struck down in Shelby County by creat­ing a new formula to determ­ine which juris­dic­tions with a history of voting discrim­in­a­tion are subject to preclear­ance, and it adds prac­tice-based cover­age, making certain types of discrim­in­at­ory voting changes subject to preclear­ance. The bill also restores Section 2 in the wake of Brnovich to ensure that voters have the full abil­ity to chal­lenge voting discrim­in­a­tion in court.

To learn more about the Voting Rights Advance­ment Act, check out the follow­ing resources:

Analyses, reports, and explain­ers from the Bren­nan Center outlining the need to restore the Voting Rights Act

Congres­sional hear­ings and testi­mony in support of the Voting Rights Advance­ment Act

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