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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

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.