One year after John Lewis’ death, voting rights bills face bleak future

Congressman John Lewis’ death last year galvanized many Democrats to honor the memory of the civil rights icon by working to pass comprehensive voting rights legislation, and inspired some to endorse eliminating the filibuster to allow these measures to be approved by a simple majority.

During his eulogy at Lewis’ funeral, former President Obama said it was necessary to end the filibuster, calling it a “Jim Crow relic.” While the use of the filibuster long predates the Jim Crow laws of the 20th century, it was used extensively by senators from the South to block civil rights legislation.

“You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for,” Mr. Obama said, referring to the Voting Rights Act. As a young civil rights activist, Lewis was beaten and nearly killed while leading a peaceful march for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965.

Now, exactly one year after Lewis’ death, voting rights legislation remains stalled in Congress, despite Democrats holding a narrow majority in the Senate.

The fight to strengthen voting rights has gained more urgency among Democrats in recent months, as several Republican-led states have considered or enacted a raft of bills limiting voting access in the wake of former President Trump’s electoral loss and his repeated false claims about voter fraud. Although the bills’ supporters argue that these restrictive measures are necessary to counter voter irregularities, there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, and critics note that these bills disproportionately affect poorer and minority voters.

The Supreme Court last month also upheld voting restrictions in Arizona, finding that two voting rules in the battleground state do not violate a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. This decision also reignited calls for Congress to pass meaningful legislation protecting voting rights.

The House in March approved the For the People Act, a sweeping voting and elections reform bill, but it was blocked in the Senate last month. Lewis had helped to craft several of the provisions of the For the People Act, which would have been the greatest overhaul of election laws in a generation. The bill, if passed, would revamp government ethics and campaign finance laws and seek to strengthen voting rights through measures such as automatic voter registration and expand access to early and absentee voting.

Another bill in the works, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which was named for Lewis, would restore a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013. That provision required certain jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to receive approval, known as preclearance, from the Justice Department before making changes to their voting rules.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has not yet been written or introduced, but members of a House subcommittee have held multiple field hearings in recent months to gather evidence of discrimination. The bill is expected to be considered as early as this fall. So far, it only has support from one Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski.  

Lawmakers and activists are continuing to press for passage of the two bills. Ohio Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was arrested on Thursday along with eight activists while demonstrating for voting rights on Capitol Hill. Beatty will also participate in a vigil honoring Lewis on Saturday evening, organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, MoveOn and other activist groups, calling on Congress to pass voting legislation in his honor.

“You can arrest me. You can’t stop me. You can’t silence me,” Beatty wrote on Twitter after her arrest.

Attorney General Merrick Garland also called on Congress to act, in a statement remembering Lewis on Saturday. He said the Justice Department is “using all the tools at its disposal to protect the voting rights of all citizens, but that is not enough.”

“We need Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would provide the Department with important tools to protect the right to vote and to ensure that every vote is counted. There is no more fitting way to honor the profound legacy of Congressman Lewis,” Garland said.

Legislation must receive 60 votes in the Senate in order to advance, and Democrats only hold a 50-seat majority. This means that any voting rights legislation would require support from 10 Republicans. Some Democrats have called for eliminating the filibuster altogether, or creating a carve-out to filibuster rules specifically for voting rights legislation, which would allow the measures to pass with a simple majority.

However, at least two Democrats, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have expressed public opposition to ending the filibuster. Without support from all 50 Democrats, there is no way to enact the rule change.

Manchin met on Thursday with a group of Texas House Democrats who fled their state in an effort to block controversial bills restricting voting rights. The Texas legislators have been meeting with lawmakers in Washington to convince them to pass federal voting rights protections.

“We work with the Voting Rights Act that we had, started in 1965, and what we’ve evolved into, and basically make a piece of legislation, one piece of legislation that protects the rights of voting, the procedure of voting, democracy, the guardrails on democracy, that’s all,” Manchin told reporters after the meeting. “And there shouldn’t be a Republican or Democrat who should oppose it.”

Manchin argued that the universal Republican opposition to the For the People Act was because it was too broad, and said that he believed they would be willing to support a narrower voting bill. However, it appears unlikely that the bill will garner any more particular support, particularly since Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has come out in opposition to it.

Meanwhile, President Biden has stopped short of calling for eliminating the filibuster, even as he has highlighted the importance of passing voting rights legislation. In a speech in Philadelphia last week, he called the fight against restrictive voting measures the “most significant test of our democracy since the Civil War.”

“The 21st century Jim Crow assault is real,” the president said. “It’s unrelenting. We’re going to challenge it vigorously.”