Skip Navigation
Analysis

Pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

The bill would restore crucial protections that have been removed from the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

August 17, 2021

On Tues­day after­noon, Demo­cratic lawmakers stood on consec­rated ground — the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. 

The members of Congress weren’t there simply to honor the sacri­fices of the late civil rights icon John Lewis and the hundreds of other march­ers who braved police tear gas and clubs for the right to vote, as they’ve done in the past. They were gathered to announce the intro­duc­tion of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act (H. R. 4), trans­form­at­ive legis­la­tion that would restore the protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act that Lewis fought so hard to enact as a civil rights activ­ist.

In 2013, the Supreme Court’s infam­ous Shelby County v. Holder decision inval­id­ated the 1965 law’s Section 5 “preclear­ance” require­ments, which preven­ted juris­dic­tions with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion from chan­ging voting rules without permis­sion from the Justice Depart­ment or a federal court. In the ruling gutting the land­mark civil rights law, Chief Justice John Roberts waved away concerns of new voting restric­tions, claim­ing that “nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramat­ic­ally.”

Unfor­tu­nately, things have changed dramat­ic­ally — just not how Roberts thought.

The danger of new voting restric­tions is no longer theor­et­ical. It’s a grim real­ity. After record voter turnout in 2020, Repub­lican state legis­lat­ors around the coun­try have respon­ded by crack­ing down on the right to vote. Bren­nan Center research shows that this year, 49 states have intro­duced over 400 bills with provi­sions that make it harder to vote, 30 of which have become law in 18 states. Just last month, the Supreme Court’s decision in Brnovich v. Demo­cratic National Commit­tee weakened Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, degrad­ing citizens’ abil­ity to chal­lenge policies that lead to voting discrim­in­a­tion.

This all paints a bleak picture as the nation’s first redis­trict­ing cycle since the Shelby County decision looms, poten­tially rede­fin­ing the balance of power in Congress and state legis­latures for the next decade.

As my colleague Wendy Weiser told Congress yester­day, the bill named for Lewis is an essen­tial step in turn­ing the tide in this war on voting rights. Restor­ing preclear­ance and strength­en­ing Section 2 of the original Voting Rights Act would undo much of the damage from the Brnovich and the Shelby County rulings.

Pres­id­ent Biden has placed his full support behind it, and his Justice Depart­ment has told Congress that the bill must be passed so that the federal govern­ment can prop­erly protect Amer­ic­ans’ voting rights nation­wide as the midterms quickly approach. The legis­la­tion would provide a desper­ately needed bulwark against continu­ing state voter suppres­sion efforts.

Congress must pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advance­ment Act without delay.