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John Lewis Voting Rights

The late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) was arrested by U.S. Capitol Police after blocking a street in front of the United States Capitol at a demonstration for immigrant rights in 2013. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Advocates Cheer Senate Reintroduction of John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

Bill co-sponsor Sen. Raphael Warnock said the proposed legislation "carries on the legacy of Congressman Lewis' work to protect the sacred right to vote."

Brett Wilkins

Democracy defenders on Tuesday cheered the U.S. Senate's reintroduction of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill passed by the House of Representatives in August that would revive key provisions of the weakened Voting Rights Act and honor the legacy of the civil rights icon after whom it is named.

"We cannot claim to honor the life of John Lewis if we refuse to carry on his life's work."

"As a proud son of the great state of Georgia and a voice for our state here in this chamber, I am deeply honored to join my colleagues here today to introduce this important legislation in honor of one of Georgia's and America's most influential public servants," said bill co-sponsor Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.) from the Senate floor. "This bill... carries on the legacy of Congressman Lewis' work to protect the sacred right to vote."

Senate President Pro Tempore Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), another co-sponsor, said that Lewis—a Georgia Democrat who served 17 terms in the House while keeping up civil rights activism spanning eight decades before his death in July 2020 at age 80—called voting "the most powerful nonviolent tool we have to create a more perfect union."

"He was right. And that's why we cannot stand idly by while states engage in flagrant suppression schemes to take this tool away from marginalized communities," Leahy added. "The House already passed the companion to the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act... Now we must do our part. We cannot claim to honor the life of John Lewis if we refuse to carry on his life's work."

If passed, the proposed legislation would restore the full protections of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA). Signed by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson following years of nonviolent but frequently deadly civil rights activism—including a young John Lewis being beaten nearly to death in Selma, Alabama months before its passage—the VRA 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 systematically eroded in recent decades by Republican-controlled state legislatures across the country. Restrictions on voter registration, reductions in early voting options, and the implementation of voter identification laws have disproportionately disenfranchised minority voters. Some GOP officials have admitted that such moves 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 gutted a key section of the law that required jurisdictions with a history of racist disenfranchisement to obtain federal approval prior to altering voting rules. 

In July, 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.

This 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. Governors have signed at least 18 of the measures into law.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris joined members of Congress and civil rights advocates in welcoming the Senate's reintroduction of the bill and urging its passage.

Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement that "for our democracy to work for all of us, it must include us all—no matter our color, party, or zip code. That is why it is vital Congress address the Supreme Court's dangerous decision in the Shelby County case and restore the federal government's ability to stop racially discriminatory voting practices."

"With more than 400 bills introduced in states across the country to silence millions of voters, the Senate must move quickly to put into place a transparent process for protecting everyone's freedom to vote," Henderson continued. "The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would help identify barriers that could silence Black, Latino, Indigenous, young, and new Americans and ensure we all have an equal say in the decisions that impact our lives."

Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the advocacy group Common Cause, said that the bill "has already been passed by the House, and it is critical that the Senate follow suit."

"The legislation will repair much of the damage done to the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Roberts," she added. "In concert with the Freedom to Vote Act, this legislation will curb the coordinated effort by Republican state legislatures across the country to silence Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian American Pacific Islander voters who showed up to vote in the 2020 elections in record numbers."

While the legislation faces an uphill battle in the chamber due to some Democrats' refusal to abolish the filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) vowed Tuesday that "the Senate will vote on this vital bill."

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