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Analysis

A Crucial Boost for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

The Senate has a stark choice: voting rights or obstruction.

Last Updated: November 3, 2021
Published: November 2, 2021
Voters cast their ballots
Media News Group Long Beach Press Telegram/Getty

UPDATE: On Novem­ber 3, Senate Repub­lic­ans voted to block debate on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act and prevent the bill from receiv­ing a floor vote.

With the addi­tion of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) as co-spon­sors, a major­ity of the Senate now supports the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act.  

Simil­arly, a major­ity supports, and has voted for, the Free­dom to Vote Act, which would estab­lish national stand­ards on voting, redis­trict­ing, and campaign finance.  

These bills are extraordin­ar­ily import­ant. They are vital to defend our demo­cracy from the assault it faces — crit­ical to ensure that elec­tions are free and fair, crit­ical to ensure that we do not choke off our emer­ging multiracial demo­cracy.  

The choice before the Senate, then, is rather stark: voting rights or obstruc­tion.  

Murkowski’s support is greatly welcomed. She has suppor­ted the John Lewis Voting Rights Act before. But the cent­ral fact is that these vital pieces of legis­la­tion have run into a brick wall of partisan obstruc­tion by the Senate Repub­lican minor­ity. That minor­ity will not even allow a vote. 

That partisan divide was not always the norm. The last time the 1965 Voting Rights Act was considered for renewal by the Senate, in 2006, it passed 98–0.  

There are ways to move these bills to a final vote without jettis­on­ing the fili­buster, ways that preserve the Senate’s cher­ished (if some­what illus­ory) values of debate and concili­ation. The fili­buster in this instance does not facil­it­ate comprom­ise or concili­ation. It allows a minor­ity to block needed legis­la­tion. The Senate has found many ways to ease passage of vital legis­la­tion despite Senate rules. This is such a time, and the stakes are that high.   

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was perhaps the most effect­ive civil rights law in Amer­ican history. It changed the South, and the coun­try. By 2012, Black voter turnout had equaled or exceeded white voter turnout in states like Louisi­ana, Alabama, and South Caro­lina. Every­one, every­one, agreed that the Voting Rights Act worked. 

In 2013, however, the Supreme Court triggered the collapse of that consensus. In Shelby County v. Holder, five justices ruled that the Voting Rights Act was outdated, and they evis­cer­ated its protec­tions. The four dissent­ing justices predicted the decision would allow the return of discrim­in­at­ory voting laws. 

The dissent­ers were right. This year alone, 19 states have passed dozens of laws making it harder to vote. Many of those states would have been required to seek federal permis­sion had the Voting Rights Act stood.

These restrict­ive new laws have dispro­por­tion­ately impacted voters of color. Steady gains in Black voting rates have been reversed. In most of the states where Black voter turnout had surged prior to Shelby County, white voter turnout rates once again far exceed rates for Black voters. It’s diffi­cult to imagine more power­ful empir­ical evid­ence that the original safe­guards of the Voting Rights Act remain neces­sary. 

The Senate will vote on advan­cing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act tomor­row. We expect it to garner a major­ity — a major­ity that repres­ents a major step toward the broad, long­stand­ing public consensus that voting rights and equal­ity under the law are sacred in the United States. That major­ity must, one way or another, rule on this most crucial of issues.