Thousands of voting rights demonstrators who gathered in Washington recently seemed to have something to celebrate: The House had just passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, an update to the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, but the mood was not celebratory. One of two major voting bills lacking Republican support, the bill attracted no GOP votes and faces long odds in the Senate, a sign of how far the party has fallen on fundamental matters of democracy.
It was not long ago that Republicans supported the 1965 law, which for decades shielded minority voters from rules and procedures that would erode their voting rights. President George W. Bush signed a broad bipartisan reauthorization in 2006. That has changed in the last 10 years, as the Supreme Court systematically dismantled the law and Republicans increasingly embraced the anti-democratic fiction that voter access, particularly for the disadvantaged, is synonymous with voter fraud.
The court eviscerated in 2013 the 1965 law’s “preclearance” system, which required states with a history of voter discrimination to obtain Justice Department approval before implementing new election laws. If they could not show that the new rules would not discriminate, by design or in practice, Justice could reject them. This system protected minority voters from all sorts of intended or unintended voting discrimination, recognizing that discrimination can be as obvious as a poll tax or as subtle as nudging a voting district boundary.
But the court struck Congress’s formula determining where preclearance applied, ruling that it was outdated. Notably, the justices did not forsake the concept of preclearance; Congress simply had to update which jurisdictions had to comply and explain why they chose those places. Lawmakers instead did nothing. As time went on, Republican opposition to renewing the law mounted, as newly unbound GOP-controlled states and localities passed fresh election restrictions, based on mistruths about election fraud.
The court made things even worse in June, weakening Section 2, the 1965 law’s second line of defense, which enables people to bring legal challenges against discriminatory laws. Congress’s reaction this time should not be further complacency and delay. The John Lewis Act would resurrect the 1965 law’s core preclearance system by updating the formula that governs which places are covered, applying preclearance to states and localities that federal courts have found to have committed voting rights violations in the past 25 years. It is heartening that it passed the House. But few Senate Republicans appear willing to consider it.
Republicans across the country have bet that fewer voters, particularly voters of color, means better fortunes for their party. This year alone, over a dozen GOP-led states have enacted more than 30 laws restricting voting, largely justified by the mythology of rampant voter fraud.
Democrats should not give up on the John Lewis Act. They should merge it with other provisions designed to promote fairness at the ballot box, such as universal voter registration, protections for absentee voters, standards to guard against rampant gerrymandering and restrictions on partisan interference with vote counting. They should dare Republicans to vote down a package that unambiguously enhances democracy, with no extraneous measures. If Republicans continue to unify against it, they should consider ways to reform the filibuster rule blocking urgent democracy reform.