News, Obituaries, Politics

Will Congressman Lewis’ death give new energy to passage of a restored Voting Rights Bill?

By Frederick H. Lowe


The recent death of Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who spent much his life fighting for voting rights, is expected to give supporters incentive for the restoration of key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. There is hope that with a strong turnout, Democrats can flip the U.S. Senate and take the White House, which would be a key in restoring the Voting Rights Act.

A key part of the landmark legislation was a formula written to monitor states with a history of discriminating against Black voters. The Voting Rights Act applied to Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

In 2013, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in which parts of the country were required to get preapproval by the federal government or federal courts prior to making any changes to their local voting laws.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion in the case titled Shelby County v. Holder. Chief Justice Roberts wrote “that things have changed dramatically” in the South in the nearly 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.  Roberts was joined in his decision by Associate Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, and Samuel Alito.

Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, and Sonia Sotomayor joined in a dissent.

“The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the VRA has proven effective,” Ginsburg wrote. “The Court appears to believe that the VRA’s  success in eliminating the specific devices extant in 1965 means that preclearance is no longer needed.”

The Court did not rule on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the preclearance act, requiring affected states to have changes to their voting rights laws first cleared by the Department of Justice or the federal court in Washington D.C.  before they go into effect. The court decision ruled that the current formula that determined what states are covered under Section 5 was unconstitutional, effectively eliminating Section 5 enforcement.

The Court ruled “Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions,” but given the fact that Republicans control both the Senate and the White House, it is unlikely that will soon occur.

The Voting Rights Act was renewed several times, the latest instance was in 2006 with a bipartisan vote. Lewis has been pushing for complete the restoration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act since the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“They are saying, in effect, that history cannot repeat itself. But I say come and walk in my shoes,” Lewis said.  Lewis died Friday. He was 80.

Vanita Gupta, the head of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the Supreme Court’s decision devastated the voting rights movement.

Senate Republicans, however, have refused to take up voting rights. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there is very little evidence of voter suppression.

Congressional Democrats are putting pressure on Republicans to release the legislation.

“The best thing that Senate Republicans can do to honor the legacy, service, sacrifice, and sincerity of Congressman Lewis is to pass the Voting Rights Bill and rename it the John R.  Lewis Voting Rights Act,” said Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (D., New York).  He added, however, that unless Democrats have full control of the Senate and theWhite House, passage of the legislation is unlikely.



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