Aug 1, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Lewis's death inspires push to restore Voting Rights Act provisions

John Lewis, Nancy Pelosi and others, speaking at a rally.
Reps. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), James Clyburn (D-S.C.), John Lewis (D-Ga.), former Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in 2016. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Democratic lawmakers and civil rights advocates have escalated calls for voting rights protections since the death of Rep. John Lewis, who made the issue his life's work.

Driving the news: House Democrats renamed a measure aimed at restoring a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act after Lewis. The bill, which passed in the House in December, has little chance of clearing the GOP-led Senate.

  • "You want to honor John? Let's honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for," said former President Obama at Lewis' funeral on Thursday.
  • "By the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — that is a fine tribute, but John wouldn't want us to stop there."

Why it matters: The renewed push comes seven years after the Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that allowed the government to regulate new election laws — like eliminating polling locations — in several mostly Southern states with a history of discrimination.

  • The court suggested at the time that Congress could reinstate the law by passing a new formula to determine which states would be subject to federal oversight.

Of note: At least 1,688 polling places closed across 13 states, nearly all in the South and West, between 2012 and 2018, according to a report by the Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights.

  • In addition, states "have shortened voting hours, enacted new barriers to registration, purged millions from voter rolls, implemented strict voter identification laws, reshaped voting districts, and closed polling places," the report says.
  • "For many people, and particularly for voters of color, older voters, rural voters, and voters with disabilities, these burdens make it harder — and sometimes impossible — to vote," the report says.

The issue wasn't always partisan. Congress has renewed the section that determines which states are subject to federal review four times, going back to 1970.

Republican leaders today have widely praised Lewis following his death, but none has expressed support for restoring the provision.

  • “There’s very little tangible evidence of this whole voter-suppression nonsense that the Democrats are promoting,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the Wall Street Journal in June.
  • “My prediction is African-American voters will turn out in as large a percentage as whites, if not more so, all across the country.”
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