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Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who died last month at the age of 80, was arrested several times in the 1960s for demonstrating in favor of voting rights for black Americans. (Photo: Spider Martin GPA photo archive/Flickr/cc)

On 55th Anniversary of Voting Rights Act, Advocates Call on Congress to Fully Restore Law to Honor John Lewis's Fight for Justice

Since the Supreme Court gutted the law in 2013, more than 1,600 polling places have been closed, including many in largely-Black and Latino communities.

Julia Conley

Civil rights advocates on Thursday marked the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both in celebration of the hard-won victory of activists in the 1960s and in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis, whose tireless organizing helped pressure lawmakers to sign the legislation.

To truly honor the memory of Lewis, who died at age 80 last month, voting rights groups said legislators must repair the damage done to the Voting Rights Act in recent years through rampant voter suppression and discrimination.

"Today would be a great day to honor John Lewis and restore the Voting Rights Act."
—Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

"It would be impossible to commemorate the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 without acknowledging the blood, sweat, and tears that Congressman John Lewis and many others gave fighting against the racist laws and practices that continue to disenfranchise Black and brown Americans," said Sean Eldridge, founder and president of Stand Up America. "On the 55th anniversary of its passage, it's clear that we have yet to achieve Lewis' vision of America and guarantee the right to vote."

Stand Up America and other advocacy groups noted as they marked the anniversary that in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act by freeing states to change their election laws without federal approval. 

Since then, more than a dozen states have passed stringent voter ID laws, closed more than 1,600 polling places, including many in majority-Black and Latino communities, or otherwise made it more difficult for residents to vote.

"Born of the horrible injustices and rampant voter suppression of the Jim Crow South, the Voting Rights Act, which turns 55 today, fully protected the right to vote for nearly five decades," Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, said in a statement. "That changed when the horribly misguided ruling by the United States Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder gutted the Voting Rights Act. In the wake of that decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, voter suppression has flourished and Americans have been systematically stripped of their ability to cast a ballot in numbers not seen since the Jim Crow era."

The group and its allies called on Congress to immediately pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), also known as H.R. 4, to fully restore the Voting Right Act. 

The legislation was passed in December by the Democratic-led House, but—although Republican lawmakers heralded Lewis as a courageous defender of civil rights when he died last month—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has yet to allow a vote on H.R. 4. 

"It is time for Senator McConnell and his caucus to allow this bipartisan legislation to move forward," said Flynn. "If there was any sincerity in their statements on the death of John Lewis, if their praise was anything more than lip service, they must bring the bill to a vote. They know full well that today Americans are once again being denied the right to vote in huge numbers, in many cases because of the color of their skin."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also called on her colleagues to honor Lewis by passing the VRAA.

"Every day the Senate fails to vote on this critical legislation is another day that states don't have the resources they need to ensure that every eligible voter will actually have access to the ballot box—and further inaction by the Senate is simply not an option," said Eldridge. "The Senate must act right now to restore the right to vote and commit itself to John Lewis' vision of America."

The day before Lewis's death, the Supreme Court again gave approval to GOP leaders who aim to suppress votes when it permitted Florida to bar former prison inmates from voting if they owe court fines or fees—going against the will of 64% of Florida voters who approved a referendum in 2018 to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions.

Meanwhile President Donald Trump and other GOP leaders are refusing to implement and fund a national vote-by-mail system, which would allow Americans to vote more safely from home in the November elections amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

"In a democracy, voters have the right to choose politicians, not the other way around," said Wendy Fields, executive director of the Democracy Initiative, a coalition of 75 civil society groups. "Sadly, what we're seeing now is the supersizing of voter suppression. Not just Black and brown voters, but the entire country is being targeted, with attacks against our public Postal Service and the right to vote by mail during a pandemic."

Fields added that thousands of Americans are honoring Lewis's legacy as they take part in the current racial justice uprising and pressure their representatives to protect voting rights and other rights.

"In 1965, Congress moved only after courageous activists—including the late John Lewis—were brutally attacked when they marched for the right to vote," said Fields. "Activists are showing courage again today, marching to protest structural and strategic racism, police brutality and the steady erosion of our democratic rights."

"Instead of responding with unmarked federal troops, tear gas and rubber bullets, it's time for our elected officials to ensure every vote counts and every vote is counted," she added. 

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