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Teri Sewell John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) speaks about the For the People Act during a March 3, 2021 press conference in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Dems Unveil Key Voting Rights Bill Amid Calls to Pass For the People Act

"It's time to pass H.R. 4 along with the For the People Act," said one House Democrat. "But we can't do so unless we finally end the filibuster."

Brett Wilkins

As Democratic U.S. lawmakers and progressive advocates welcomed Tuesday's reintroduction of H.R. 4—the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—they stressed that neither it, nor the more sweeping For the People Act, can be passed unless the Senate ends the filibuster.

"Our demands are clear: Eliminate the filibuster and pass the For the People Act, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and the Washington, D.C. Admission Act."
—Declaration for American Democracy

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) announced the latest iteration of H.R. 4 as she stood before a backdrop of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other civil rights activists were brutally beaten and gassed by state troopers while marching for voting rights—which had been denied to nearly all Black southerners since the late 19th century—on "Bloody Sunday" in March 1965.

Sewell has introduced what was originally called the Voting Rights Advancement Act in every Congress since 2015, adding Lewis' name following the civil rights icon's death in 2020. The House approved a version of the measure by a vote of 229-187 in December, 2019.

"As a native of Selma and the representative of Alabama's Civil Rights District I knew there was no place more befitting," Sewell said during the bill's unveiling on Tuesday, according to WSFA.

Five months after "Bloody Sunday," then-President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law following years of tireless and frequently deadly civil rights activism. The landmark legislation was meant to ensure that state and local governments could not "deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."

However, the VRA has been eroded in recent decades by Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country, including restrictions on voter registration, reduction in early voting options, and voter identification laws. These measures disproportionately disenfranchise minority voters, and some GOP officials have admitted that they are intended to give Republican candidates an electoral edge.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a major blow to the VRA in Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated a key section of the law that required jurisdictions with a history of racist disenfranchisement to obtain federal approval prior to altering voting rules. Last month, the nation's high court voted 5-4 in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee to uphold Arizona's voting restrictions—even as Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged that they disproportionately affect minorities.

GOP voter suppression efforts have predictably accelerated following Shelby and Brnovich. Over the past year alone, Republican lawmakers in 49 states have introduced over 400 bills with provisions that restrict voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. At least 18 of the measures have been signed into law.

Kadeem Cooper, policy counsel at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, pointed out that "provisions in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will address the voting discrimination that has been ongoing since the Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision."

"As state legislatures have moved with unprecedented speed and force to roll back voting rights and erect unconscionable barriers to the ballot box for voters of colors," Cooper said, "we need a strong Voting Rights Act to combat these abhorrent actions and prevent future ones."

While lauding the introduction of H.R. 4, Vice President Kamala Harris, Democratic lawmakers, and progressive advocates pointed to GOP voter suppression efforts as they asserted the need to pass the For the People Act, a sweeping pro-democracy bill whose provisions include voting rights expansion, restriction of partisan gerrymandering, more robust ethics rules, limiting money in politics, implementation of the DISCLOSE Act, and Washington, D.C. statehood.

"The House today is taking a momentous step to secure the sacred right to vote for generations to come," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a press release.

Pelosi continued:

A brazen, partisan campaign of voter suppression silences voters of color across the nation and threatens to erode our democracy... With the attack on the franchise escalating and states beginning the process of redistricting, we must act. When the House returns on August 23rd, Democrats plan to pass H.R. 4—and we hope it can secure the bipartisan support this vital legislation deserves. We must also enact H.R. 1, the For the People Act, to ensure that every American has a say in the destiny of our democracy.

Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweeted, "Make no mistake: If Dems don't pass the For the People Act, the GOP is going to gerrymander their way to a House majority—and they may never give it up."

In March, the House passed the For the People Act without a single Republican vote. However, Senate Republicans have twice blocked the measure, and moving to a final vote on it would requires support from not only every Democratic member of the upper chamber but also 10 GOP senators.

Advocates argue that the only way to break through such deadlock and obstruction is for the Senate to abolish the filibuster.

"Unless we end the filibuster and pass federal voting legislation, state Republicans will continue to create barriers to voting," the grassroots advocacy group Stand Up America tweeted following H.R. 4's introduction.

Sylvia Albert, director of voting and elections at Common Cause, said in a statement that "it is critically important that Congress pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to protect the freedom to vote of every American... In concert with the For the People Act, this legislation will curb the coordinated effort by Republican state legislatures across the country to silence Black and Brown voters who showed up in record numbers last year to vote."

Noting the pitfalls impeding Senate passage of the voting rights measure, Albert added that "if 10 Senate Republicans won't support this bill, then Senate Democrats must reform the filibuster."

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