In the one year since the voting rights icon John Lewis died on July 17, 2020, the efforts to undermine Americans’ ability to cast ballots in fair and equal elections have been nothing short of dizzying.
From the wave of Republican-led restrictive election laws cropping up across the country to the former president spreading widely debunked conspiracy theories about non-existent election fraud to straight-up voter suppression and too much more, there has been a non-stop assault on the United States’ democratic process in an effort to skew it against Democrats and people who vote for them.
All of which has made the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act‘s passage an increasingly urgent part of Democrats’ collective agenda on Capitol Hill ahead of the 2022 midterm and 2024 general elections. It could be one of the few ways for Democrats to try to even the voting field that has been upended by the growing number of states placing increased restrictions on access to the ballot.
Reducing the locations and use of secure drop boxes for absentee ballots, prohibiting the use of mobile voting to ease long lines and allowing for state takeover of local boards of election — like what has happened in Georgia, which Lewis represented in Congress for more than 30 years — will make it harder for people to vote in states that helped Joe Biden beat Donald Trump last November.
More than 150 companies have expressed their support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to be enacted into law, NBC News reported.
“Despite decades of progress, impediments to exercising the right to vote persist in many states, especially for communities of color. We need federal protections to safeguard this fundamental right for all Americans,” an open letter from the companies, including influential monopolies like Amazon and Target, said in part.
What would the John Lewis Voting Rights Act do?
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is proposed legislation that would restore and strengthen Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which was all but eliminated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Shelby County v. Holder that allows places with a history of voter discrimination to continue their ways unless the federal government intervenes.
Specifically, “The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act responds to current conditions in voting today by restoring the full protections of the original, bipartisan Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was last reauthorized by Congress in 2006, but gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013,” the bill’s language says.
First proposed in 2019 by Alabama Rep. Terri Sewell, the legislation has languished since the last administration and continued to stall even as Democrats in 2021 enjoy the rare supermajority — control of both chambers of Congress and the White House. That’s largely due to the awareness of Republicans’ eagerness to wield the filibuster to block any Democratic-led bills.
The Department of Justice has sued Georgia for knowingly passing a racist voting law that “particularly” affects Black people. The lawsuit targets the State of Georgia, the Georgia Secretary of State and the Georgia State Election Board for their roles in passing a law that makes it harder to vote in areas from which voters cast ballots that secured the number of electoral college votes needed for Biden to win Trump to lose.
Several provisions in Georgia’s new law limit voter participation by requiring those voting by absentee ballot to submit a copy of their ID, reduces the locations and use of secure drop boxes, prohibits the use of mobile voting to ease long lines and allows for state takeover of local boards of election.
The DOJ’s lawsuit suggests there will be more for any of the more than a dozen other states that have enacted at least 20 new laws that make it harder to vote.
What about the filibuster?
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn — who is widely credited for securing Biden’s Democratic presidential nomination — has publicly pressured the president to get aggressive with action on the filibuster.
Others have called for outright abolishing the filibuster. Leading civil rights and Democracy reformers see Republican refusal to reach a consensus on election reform as a grave threat to the state of American Democracy.
Biden reportedly does not want to eliminate the filibuster out of concern that Republicans will take advantage of its absence if and when they regain control of Congress. But in the meantime, Republicans are repeatedly blocking Democrats’ legislative agenda by using the filibuster, leaving an unresolved conundrum in place at a time in the country’s history when voting rights are being upended with impunity.
Time for ‘good trouble’?
If there ever was a time for the kind of “good trouble” that Lewis promoted during his lifetime, it is now, as evidenced by a growing number of demonstrations of civil disobedience to achieve a greater goal. That happened most recently on Thursday when Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty was among multiple people arrested in Washington, D.C., for leading a group protesting against the new laws suppressing the right to vote.
Beatty said that the only way to counter these restrictive voting laws is to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
But it’s unclear if that type of rhetorical effort that worked for Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King and other civil rights icons in the 1960s will be enough. Thus far, at least in 2021, it has not. And with time being of the essence, it may be up to Biden to force the issue and bypass the elusive bipartisanship that he’s been striving to achieve.
The prospects of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act being signed into law were not immediately clear, but a longshot never stopped the legendary congressman from looking on the bright side.
“Be hopeful. Be optimistic,” Lewis once said. “Never lose that sense of hope.”
This is America.