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Honor John Lewis and Protect the Right to Vote

Brennan Center President Michael Waldman testified before the House on the need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act.

June 24, 2021
Spencer Platt/Getty


This testi­mony given before the House Admin­is­tra­tion Commit­tee’s Elec­tion Subcom­mit­tee. The writ­ten testi­mony is here.

This is a crit­ical moment for our demo­cracy and a crit­ical aspect of the fight for our demo­cracy. As you all know, the Voting Rights Act was perhaps the most effect­ive civil rights law our nation has ever had — vital to the drive for a vibrant multiracial demo­cracy in our coun­try. 

As you know, eight years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the most effect­ive part of that law. Members of Congress of both parties have the power and the duty to right that wrong, to modern­ize the Voting Rights Act and strengthen it to defend our demo­cracy so all Amer­ic­ans can vote. 

I want to make three the points build­ing on the testi­mony that others have said.

First of all, as we’ve just heard, for the past eight years, the absence of pre-clear­ance, the absence of a strong Voting Rights Act, opened the way for racially discrim­in­at­ory voting rules and prac­tices across the coun­try. For example, voter purges: remov­ing voters from the rolls can be appro­pri­ate or it can remove eligible voters. We found in Bren­nan Center research that voter purge rates soared in the states that previ­ously had been covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act pre-clear­ance, 40 percent higher than the rest of the coun­try. All told, 17 million people nation­wide were removed from the rolls in just two years. We’ve seen polling place clos­ures and all kinds of other activ­it­ies around the coun­try that have been described and docu­mented.

And now, in the wake of the 2020 elec­tion, the absence of a strong Voting Rights Act has opened the way for the attack on voting that is taking place right now in the states. We keep track of this. As of May 14th of this year, lawmakers and states have intro­duced more than 389 bills in 48 states that one way or another would curb the vote or restrict voting. And I should note that these are not back-bench­ers throw­ing a bill in the hopper to get a good few hours on Twit­ter. These are bills that are passing and becom­ing law. Seven­teen states have enacted new laws that in one way or another restrict access to voting, and these laws often uncan­nily target voters of color. And again, were the Voting Rights Act in full effect, were pre-clear­ance in full effect, these laws would be scru­tin­ized, many would be blocked, many would be blun­ted. 

The second point I want to make is that these racially discrim­in­at­ory laws are based on a lie. Amer­ican elec­tions are secure and account­able. Voter fraud in the United States is vanish­ingly rare. You are, as has been noted many times, more likely to be struck by light­ning than to commit in-person voter imper­son­a­tion in this coun­try. And contrary to the Big Lie about the 2020 elec­tion, it was extraordin­ar­ily well run, as confirmed by the Depart­ment of Home­land Secur­ity, as confirmed by 60 courts, as confirmed by the Justice Depart­ment under Pres­id­ent Trump. And I will note that this week, the Repub­lican legis­lature in Michigan put out a report confirm­ing there was no substan­tial voter fraud there, and the elec­tion was well run there. 

Yet this is a lie that justi­fies a conspir­acy theory that provides the pretext for discrim­in­at­ory voting laws being pushed and passed all over the coun­try. And I should note again the racial subtext, unfor­tu­nately, is rarely far from the surface. When former Pres­id­ent Trump targeted and called out and sought the removal of the effect­ive votes from voters in Detroit and Phil­adelphia, in Milwau­kee and Atlanta, it wasn’t very subtle what the implic­a­tions of that were. All the more reason why conspir­acy theor­ies should not be allowed to deny people the right to vote, and why Congress and members of both parties can once again protect that right to vote with a strong Voting Rights Act. 

I’ll note finally as a third point that it is import­ant that this legis­la­tion be under­stood to work in tandem with the For the People Act, with H.R. 1, which has already passed the House of Repres­ent­at­ives. Both are vital. Both are needed. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act in effect is forward-look­ing. It deals with pre-clear­ance for future legis­lat­ive propos­als. H.R. 1 would set national stand­ards for elec­tions, includ­ing laws that have been passed right now. Both are consti­tu­tional. Both are well-craf­ted. Both are needed. We urge the support of Congress for both of them. 

Finally, as you know, John Lewis’s name is on this bill. He gave so much of his blood and of his own soul and cour­age to bring the Voting Rights Act into effect. Members of both parties over many decades worked together in this effort. We urge you to once again carry forward his legacy, carry forward his name, by strength­en­ing, modern­iz­ing this vital piece of Amer­ican law.