Why Congress must pass HR 1 and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act

Republican state legislators nationwide are already moving fast to restrict our freedom to vote

Reps. John Lewis and Terri A. Sewell and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy attend a 2019 news conference on voting rights legislation. The bill, now named after Lewis, who died last year, would help reverse voting curbs that disproportionately affect people of color, Albert writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Reps. John Lewis and Terri A. Sewell and Sen. Patrick J. Leahy attend a 2019 news conference on voting rights legislation. The bill, now named after Lewis, who died last year, would help reverse voting curbs that disproportionately affect people of color, Albert writes. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 2, 2021 at 6:00am

In the 2020 election, we used our vote, whether it was cast early, by mail or on Election Day, to determine the future for our family, community and country. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial injustice and the confusion and sudden changes to the voting process thrown at us, we showed up and decided the outcome of a free and fair election.

Now, after showing our power as voters, some partisan politicians in state legislatures are pushing bills that would restrict our freedom to vote, while Congress is on the verge of passing laws to protect and strengthen it.

Already in 2021, more than 250 bills in 43 states have been introduced by Republican state legislators that create more unnecessary barriers to voting. From cutting early voting, to increasing purges of voter registration lists, to limiting absentee voting options, these bills are shameless, partisan attempts to silence us. It is not a coincidence that these bills are being introduced after a free, fair and secure election with record turnout. Americans exercised their right to vote, and these politicians’ response is “We don’t want you to vote.” Under the guise of “election integrity,” many of these bills target voters of color and young voters who already face many barriers to the ballot box. They have nothing to do with election integrity and are simply an attack on our freedom to vote.

Instead of erecting new barriers to voting, we should be working to build a democracy that is truly of, by and for the people, where all eligible Americans can vote and make their voices heard. That’s why Congress must pass, and President Joe Biden must sign into law, the For the People Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Let’s start with the For the People Act, which the House is expected to vote on this week. It’s the boldest pro-democracy reform package introduced in Congress since the Watergate era. If enacted, it would strengthen our ethics and conflict-of-interest laws, stop unaccountable secret and special interest money from corrupting our politics, end partisan gerrymandering and protect voting rights and election security.

The For the People Act would set standards so every voter, regardless of their race, age or ZIP code, has equal access to the ballot box. The bill would improve our elections in several ways. First, it would streamline the voter registration process by allowing voters to register securely online or on Election Day. It would also stop the purging of voters from registration records and instead modernize the process by simply registering eligible voters when they interact with a state government agency.

Secondly, the bill would increase the security and integrity of our elections by requiring the use of paper ballots, increasing oversight of election vendors and encouraging states to conduct risk-limiting election audits, which help us have confidence in the election results. The For the People Act would also crack down on voter intimidation and the spread of disinformation by increasing penalties for promoting false information about the right to vote.

Finally, the For the People Act would ensure that there are more secure and accessible options to vote and reduce long voting lines by expanding early and absentee voting. It would also restore the right to vote to people who have completed their felony sentences and declare that Washington, D.C., residents deserve full voting rights and representation by supporting D.C. statehood.

The other bill Congress must pass to protect voting rights is the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act (introduced in the Senate as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act). In 2013, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court eroded key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which protected voters from racial discrimination and intimidation. This decision led to numerous states passing new anti-voter laws that restrict access to the ballot box and cut the number of polling places in our communities.

These changes have disproportionately restricted the freedom to vote for voters of color, often leading to long lines and less resources to run accessible elections in Black and brown communities. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act is our chance to reverse this trend by restoring the Voting Rights Act and strengthening the provisions in it to protect the freedom to vote for all Americans, particularly voters of color.

As more Republican state legislators seem focused on selling debunked conspiracy theories and lies about the integrity of our elections, we — the voters who determine the outcome of our elections — need to make sure our members of Congress know they must focus on delivering bold action to protect voting rights.

Nothing, including the filibuster, which is a relic of the Jim Crow era and subverts the basic notion of majority rule in our democracy, should stop Congress from passing comprehensive democracy reform to strengthen our elections like the For the People Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act.

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Sylvia Albert is the director of voting and elections at Common Cause, which has been holding power accountable through lobbying, litigation and grassroots organizing since 1970.