House revises voting rights bill to boost Justice Department powers to challenge states

Vote likely next week on measure named to honor late Rep. John Lewis

Voting right legislation introduced Tuesday by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., will be considered in the House next week. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Voting right legislation introduced Tuesday by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., will be considered in the House next week. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 17, 2021 at 3:02pm

House Democrats introduced the latest version of what’s been dubbed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act on Tuesday, intent on beefing up a civil rights-era law cut back by a series of Supreme Court decisions. 

The effort still faces significant Republican opposition, however, and the prospects of a filibuster in the Senate. The bill comes after a series of House committee hearings over the past several months to establish a legislative record for modern efforts to suppress minority groups’ voting power.

In a statement Tuesday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., criticized a wave of election law changes passed in the last few months by Republican-controlled states and said the House would vote on the bill next week.

“In doing so, we live up to the powerful legacy of this bill’s late namesake, Congressman Lewis: a titan of the Civil Rights Movement and a courageous champion for voting rights,” Pelosi’s statement said. “With the attack on the franchise escalating and states beginning the process of redistricting, we must act.”

Last week, the Census Bureau released the detailed data states and localities will use to draw new legislative and congressional districts. That process has kicked civil rights and activists groups into a new gear to pressure Congress to act  as nine states will draw new maps without Justice Department oversight for the first time in decades.

Civil rights advocates ranging from the Southern Poverty Law Center to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights praised the introduction Tuesday. Many of those groups testified at hearings over the past several months about the potentially discriminatory laws passed in states such as Georgia in the wake of the 2020 election.

The bill is designed to respond to several Supreme Court decisions, including the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision that invalidated the mechanism for the Justice Department to preclear election law changes and the Brnovich v. DNC decision from July that restricts when an election change that causes a disproportionate impact to minority communities violates the law.

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., the prime sponsor of the bill, said during a Tuesday event on the bill’s introduction that it was meant to honor the sacrifices to expand the franchise made by Lewis, a House member from Georgia who died last year, and other civil rights campaigners.

“We will provide the kind of evidence federal enforcement needed to make sure that we honor the legacy of these soldiers,” Sewell said.

Responding to the court

Sewell said provisions in the bill were meant to respond to criticisms by the Supreme Court, particularly that the earlier Voting Rights Act’s preclearance regime had become outdated. The new language would provide a rolling review of preclearance — meaning the Justice Department could review election law changes in a state if it meets a certain threshold of violations.

If a state accumulates 15 violations in 25 years, or 10 with one statewide violation, it would be subject to preclearance for a decade, according to the language introduced Tuesday.

The bill would also add another category of “practice-based” preclearance, which would give the Justice Department oversight when a jurisdiction takes certain actions like switching from district-based to at-large elections. Sewell said that such practices have been used in the past to dilute minority votes and should be subject to extra scrutiny.

Republicans in both chambers have opposed Democrats’ efforts to change election law, referring to them as federal takeovers of local elections.

Sewell and other Democrats have acknowledged the steep climb the bill faces in the evenly  divided Senate. The bill has backing from Democratic leadership in the chamber, but only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has signed on to support it. A similar Voting Rights Act measure that passed the House in 2019 died in the Senate, which was then Republican-controlled, without a vote.

That reality has increased pressure on moderate Democrats, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, to back changes to the filibuster rules — pressure the pair has so far resisted.

“If there’s any reason to revise or reform the filibuster it is to protect our democracy,” Sewell said during Tuesday’s event.

Other new provisions in the bill would create a new test for violations after the fact, which Sewell said comes as a response to the Brnovich decision. The language introduced Tuesday includes two new tests: one for vote dilution cases, such as during redistricting, and another for vote denial claims, such as for a voter ID case.

Another provision would allow for the Justice Department or other plaintiffs to sue over a law that has been passed but not yet implemented. That comes in response to testimony during hearings where advocates complained that litigation over a law found to be discriminatory could take years to overturn — with multiple elections occurring in the interim.