Senate Republicans block John Lewis voting rights bill

November 3, 2021
In this March 7, 1965, file photo, a state trooper swings a billy club at John Lewis, right foreground, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala.
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WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats failed to advance the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act on Wednesday after Republicans blocked the vote from advancing to debate.

The legislation would replace part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2013 and would aim to restore Justice Department review of changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.

The bill did not receive the 60 votes needed to overcome a legislative hurdle called a filibuster, preventing the start of debate on the legislation. 

In a vote of 50 to 49, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska was the only Republican who supported proceeding to debate. Speaking from the Senate floor prior to the vote, she said while she had “reservations” on the legislation, she believed it was the best starting point to begin debating voting rights legislation.

“I think we should be able to agree to meaningful improvements that will help ensure that all our elections are free, they’re fair, and they’re accessible,” Murkowski said.

The vote Wednesday came nearly two weeks after Democratic leadership in the upper chamber attempted to advance another piece of voting rights legislation. That was also blocked by Republicans with the filibuster.

More:Voting rights and election reform: Senate Republicans block latest legislation

Democrats have been pushing to pass new voting legislation as several states pursued new restrictions after the 2020 election. 

A USA TODAY analysis of 254 new laws in 45 states passed since then revealeda variety of changes voters may notice and otheradministrative changes happening behind the scenes. In total, about 55 million eligible voters live in states with changes that will give them less access.

‘A new American fault line’: How new election laws will make it harder for 55 million to vote

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday that “across the country, we are witnessing a coordinated assault on the right to vote and even on how elections are conducted, tallied, and potentially decided, a true threat to the ultimate foundation of our democracy.”

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act– named for the late Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a civil-rights icon – drew little support from Senate Republicans.The legislation passed the House in August 219-212 along party lines.

About the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

Democrats, who control both chambers of Congress, are seeking to restore protections for voting rights they contend have eroded since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and were further scaled back by the Supreme Court in 2013. 

In 2013, the high court ruled that states no longer had to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required some states and municipalities with a history of discriminatory voting laws to obtain federal “preclearance” before enacting changes to voting laws or practices.

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The legislation up for a vote Wednesday seeks to bring back the preclearance requirementeither from the Justice Department or federal courts, before those states can making changes to election processes.

The Supreme Court in strikingdown that portion of the Voting Rights Act said the formula to determine which jurisdictions needed preclearance was outdated. The court did not rule that the requirement itself was unconstitutional.

More:Activists working in John Lewis’ shadow warn about voter suppression ahead of November vote

The John Lewis bill is an attempt by lawmakers to find a formula for preclearance that would survive an even more conservative court.

The bill would also restore voters ability to challenge laws, such as those related redistricting or onerous voter ID requirements that could be discriminatory. 

That provision is in response to two voting laws in Arizona that the court upheld earlier this year. The decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee said states may have good reason to shorten voting hours that have nothing to do with discrimination.

Where do Republicans stand?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and most Senate Republicans signaled well before the vote they would not support opening debate on the legislation.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, called it “unconstitutional” when asked by USA TODAY. 

“Section two of the Voting Rights Act is the law of the land. So if somebody does pass a law that the federal government believes violates the Voting Rights Act, they can file a lawsuit, but there’s no basis upon which the state should be required to ask permission ahead of time,” Cornyn explain.

Republicans also argue that the legislation is part of a partisan strategy for Democrats to federalize election rules to their advantage.

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“This is a Trojan horse to carry a lot of other provisions that the Democrats have wanted going through the earlier bill that we’ve already considered and rejected, McConnell said.

Josh Silver, president of RepresentUs, a nonprofit nonpartisan organization aimed at anti-corruption, told USA TODAY that because of today’s political climate, Senate Republicans are likely to block almost all election reform legislation. That includes even scaled-back bills like the Freedom to Vote Act, which Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., helped create to bring GOP lawmakers on board. 

No Republicans voted in favor to move to debate on that bill, either.

He noted that Republicans in past decades have support election reform similar to the John Lewis VRAA, like in 2006, when the Voting Rights Act Reauthorization and Amendments Act passed the Senate 98-0.

“This is a new era where the sort of intersection of primaries, gerrymandering, rampant money in politics, this broken political system, has conspired to incentivize gridlock, polarization, and extremism that is now captured US government,” Silver said. 

“Politicians are currently acting rationally in a broken system.”

Contributing: USA TODAY reporters Jeanine Santucci, Bart Jansen, Joey Garrison, Nick Penzenstadler, Phillip M. Bailey, Rachel Looker



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