U.S. House passes voting rights bill but Senate approval unlikely

By: - August 25, 2021 8:20 am

At the Leon County Courthouse, 2020 voters could vote early in person or by dropping their ballots in a drop box. Credit: Diane Rado

The U.S. House on Tuesday passed, 219-212, along party lines a bill to reinstate a core section of the Voting Rights Act — a direct rebuke to state laws the bill’s supporters say have restricted voting rights.

The bill, named for the late civil rights icon and longtime Georgia Democratic U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis, would restore the federal government the power to check some state voting laws that the U.S. Justice Department finds racially discriminatory. The bill is a reaction to more than a dozen Republican-led states that have passed laws since the 2020 elections seeking to add voting restrictions.

While the bill has the support of Senate Democrats and President Joe Biden, it is unlikely to become law because at least 10 Senate Republicans would have to vote for it.

Throughout floor debate Tuesday, Democrats invoked Lewis to garner support. U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.) said Lewis often repeated that “the vote is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have.”

“That tool is once again under attack,” Neguse said.

Neguse spotlighted laws in Florida, Georgia and Iowa as examples of the nationwide effort to restrict voting. Laws in those states and elsewhere have gutted early voting and vote-by-mail, closed polling places and restricted voting aid efforts like supplying food and water. Critics have said the laws have targeted Black voters.

U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach (R-Minn) said the bill would strip state and local governments of their ability to regulate elections.

The bill “grants the federal government unprecedented control over states and local elections,” she said.

Democrats’ second try

At least 10 Republican senators would need to vote yes for the bill to become law. There is no indication close to that many would consider it.

Critical Democratic swing vote Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has said he supports it. Manchin’s opposition was key to sinking an earlier, more expansive voting rights bill that House Democrats passed earlier this year. Every other Senate Democrat co-sponsored the bill but because the Senate is evenly split 50-50, Democrats typically can’t afford to lose any votes.

The earlier bill, which was given the title HR 1 because of its importance to the caucus and its leaders, included changes to campaign finance and the addition of federal standards for elections like same-day registration and at least 15 days of early voting.

Manchin said he prefers the bill named for Lewis, a narrower measure that reinstates the preclearance requirement but doesn’t otherwise set national standards.

A long history

Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, many southern states with histories of poll taxes, literacy tests and other Jim Crow-era ballot restrictions were required to clear proposed voting rights changes with the federal Justice Department. The law was credited with expanding access for Black voters.

2013 Supreme Court caseHolder v. Shelby County, struck down the preclearance requirement. Following the 2020 presidential election, the first since Holder that the Republican candidate lost, several Republican states that were previously under the preclearance requirement enacted laws restricting ballot access.

House Democrats cast the federal bill as a countermeasure to that trend.

“Georgia was one of the first states in the country to pass a voter suppression bill after the 2020 general election,” U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux (D-Ga.) said Tuesday. “It’s time for Congress to fix what the Supreme Court wrote in a 2013 ruling, which effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act.”

Republicans in the U.S. House, though, said Democrats had other motives.

U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee that has oversight over elections, accused Democrats of executing “a partisan power grab.”

The bill would not allow states to enact measures like photo identification requirements that most Americans support, the Illinois Republican said. Monmouth University Polling Institute found in June that 62% of respondents favor voter ID.

The same poll, though, found that 69% of respondents approve of expanded access to mail-in and early voting, and that 80% support making voting easier generally. Democrats say laws in Republican-led states have had the opposite effect.

Biden supports the bill, the White House said in a Monday statement that lauded the high turnout in last year’s presidential election.

“This historic level of participation in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic should have been celebrated by everyone,” the White House said. “Instead, some have sought to delegitimize the election and make it harder to vote, in many cases by targeting the methods of voting that made it possible for many voters to participate.”

House Republicans said Tuesday that level of participation showed the voting system worked well and didn’t need a national overhaul.

U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) said there was “not a scintilla of evidence” that voter suppression was occurring.

U.S. Rep. Nikema Williams, a Democrat who represents the House seat Lewis held for 33 years, was the Democrats’ second-to-last speaker Tuesday. She said recent state election laws, including Georgia’s, had the same aim as Jim Crow laws.

“We might not be counting jelly beans in a jar,” Williams said, referencing one method of restricting Black voter registration during the Jim Crow era. “But make no mistake, they seek the same purpose: To stop people who look like me from accessing the right to vote.”

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob Fischler is a national correspondent for States Newsroom, a nonprofit media organization covering state government and politics in state capitals across the country. The Florida Phoenix outlet is a part of the States Newsroom.

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