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Analysis

Mitch McConnell Honored John Lewis with Words. Now He Must Do It with Action.

The Senate majority leader supported the Voting Rights Act in the past, but now he’s refusing to restore its key protections.

August 7, 2020
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Michael A. McCoy/Getty

Rep. John Lewis’s fight for the right to vote was heroic. He was the youngest person to speak at the 1963 March on Washington and at the front of the line of the demonstrators who were beaten by state troopers after crossing the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama. It can’t be overstated how important the efforts of Lewis and so many other civil rights activists were leading up to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that has been a pillar of American democracy ever since.

It’s hard to believe given today’s polarization on Capitol Hill, but the VRA was reauthorized by Congress with an overwhelming bipartisan majority several times over the decades. Most recently in 2006, it passed the Republican-majority U.S. Senate 98-0 and was signed by Republican President George W. Bush — matching the same party structure as today’s senate and presidency.

Historically, racist voter suppression tactics like literacy tests, poll taxes, and intimidation campaigns were a coordinated effort to suppress the Black vote. One of the key pieces of the VRA was that it acknowledged that voter discrimination was widespread, and not just in the South. It provided a formula for identifying places with a history of voter discrimination and required that when those places wanted to make changes to their voting laws, they must get them cleared by the federal government first before being implemented — a process called “preclearance.” It was one of the most effective tools for combating voter discrimination. But in a wrongheaded decision, that formula was deemed to be no longer necessary by the Supreme Court in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her dissent, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Predictably, voter suppression tactics swiftly came back — Texas implemented a strict photo ID law within 24 hours of the decision.

In order to overcome the damage, H.R. 4 — the Voting Rights Advancement Act — was introduced in 2019 to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full strength. After a series of hearings that established the continued need for its protections, the House passed the bill in December 2019. Given the historical bipartisan support for the Voting Rights Act, one might think that the Senate would have passed it too. But senators have not had a chance to vote on it, because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not yet brought up for consideration.

It’s curious, because not only did McConnell vote in favor of reauthorizing the VRA in 2006, he was the majority whip, which means he was responsible for getting all of his fellow Republicans to vote in favor of it too.

And he didn’t just do the legwork to round up votes for getting the VRA reauthorized — he gave an impassioned speech supporting it on the Senate floor:

“I happen to have been there the day the original voting rights bill was signed... We have, of course, renewed the Voting Rights Act periodically since that time, overwhelmingly, and on a bipartisan basis, year after year after year because members of Congress realize this is a piece of legislation which has worked. And one of my favorite sayings that many of us use from time to time is, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

“This is a good piece of legislation which has served an important purpose over many years... And this landmark piece of legislation will continue to make a difference not only in the South but for all of America and for all of us, whether we are African-Americans or not.”

Following Lewis’s death, the House renamed H.R. 4 the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. In a memorial tribute to Lewis in the Capitol rotunda, McConnell called him a “hero.” If McConnell wants to honor Lewis and the voting rights he fought for, he’ll bring up the bill bearing Lewis’s name for a vote and get it passed.