House passes voting rights bill as White House, Senate face pressure

Activists call for more action from Biden, as conservative opposition builds

A poster honoring the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis, namesake of a voting rights bill the House passed Tuesday, sits on an easel outside a room where military officers, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, in background, briefed lawmakers on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A poster honoring the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis, namesake of a voting rights bill the House passed Tuesday, sits on an easel outside a room where military officers, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley, in background, briefed lawmakers on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 24, 2021 at 7:44pm

Just as the House was preparing to take up a voting rights measure Tuesday, a collection of activists gathered near the White House in Lafayette Square to push for the bill and other legislative priorities. It’s a sign of what’s next.

Their focus was not on the House, which passed the measure 219-212 along party lines Tuesday evening, but instead on the bill’s uncertain path ahead — through the Senate and to President Joe Biden’s desk. 

Organizers of the rally, during which some zip-tied themselves to metal barricades across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, made clear they were losing patience with Biden. With a backdrop of the White House and a sign that read “STEP UP JOE,” they urged Biden to use his bully pulpit to gin up support for rolling back the Senate filibuster rules requiring 60 votes for legislation to clear the chamber, chanting at times: “Hey, hey, hey, Joe, the filibuster has got to go.” 

They also rallied in support of a campaign finance and elections overhaul and a D.C. statehood bill.

“Our president has given us his word that he will be a champion for voting rights. Well, we have yet to see him put those words into action,” said Deborah Turner, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States. 

Turner noted that “just over 100 years ago, brave women stood on this very spot” in Lafayette Square. “Those suffragists were calling on the president to expand voting rights for women. Today, we gather in front of the White House to continue their fight for full and equal voting rights for all,” she said.  

Virginia Kase Solomón, CEO of the League of Women Voters, speaks Tuesday at a voting rights rally in Lafayette Square across from the White House. (Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

The bill, named in honor of the late civil rights icon and Georgia Rep. John Lewis, is designed to respond to several Supreme Court decisions, including the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case that invalidated the mechanism the Justice Department used to “pre-clear” election law changes and the Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee decision from July that restricts when an election change that causes a disproportionate impact to minority communities violates the law.

Rep. Terri A. Sewell, an Alabama Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, said last week that the voting rights measure was meant to honor the sacrifices made to expand the franchise by Lewis, 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.

Sewell and others, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and family members of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., are planning to attend a march for voting rights in Washington on Saturday, which will be the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. Several other marches are planned across the country.  

The voting rights bill could give the Justice Department more power to sue to block or overturn state voter laws and redistricting maps. Democrats held several hearings this year to build a legal record for the bill, anticipating legal challenges.

Though measures surrounding the Voting Rights Acts had been bipartisan for years, Republicans have been mobilizing in opposition to the bill. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a Senate candidate, lobbied members of his state’s delegation to oppose the voting rights bill.  

“Few issues are more important than election integrity and state sovereignty,” he wrote. “Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our constitutional republic. If Americans lose trust in our  elections, then our system of government will rapidly decay. We must work together, as Republicans and Democrats, to assure all of our constituents that their votes are being fairly and accurately counted.”

He has called the bill a Democratic power grab. 

Conservative activist Ken Blackwell, a former Ohio secretary of state who chairs the America First Policy Institute’s Center for Election Integrity, called the measure “another unconstitutional effort to take power away from the states and federalize our elections.” 

“This federal legislation poses a great threat to our election system by stripping away security measures and protections against fraud, and it would put all aspects of elections, even down to the printed materials that are used, under the control of the federal government,” Blackwell said in a statement.

Jana Morgan, the director of the Declaration for American Democracy, was among those who zip-tied herself to a barricade near the White House on Tuesday.  

“Really now, all eyes are on the Senate and Joe Biden,” she said. 

Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for Common Cause, which supports the voting rights and the campaign and elections overhaul bills, said his group was ramping up in support of both measures. 

“We’re continuing to mobilize and energize our thousands of activists and volunteers to do whatever it takes to get the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act this fall,” he said.

Michael Macagnone contributed to this report