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Dems take big step with John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

House Democrats took a big step by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, despite unanimous Republican opposition.


It's no secret that Republican officials in states across the country are approving voter-restriction measures at a breakneck pace. There's no great mystery as to why: GOP officials believe the anti-voting is necessary to help the party claim power, and thanks to conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court, who gutted the Voting Rights Act, the attacks on the franchise are possible.

To that end, congressional Democrats and other voting-rights advocates have rallied behind the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 4). As NBC News reported, the bill passed the chamber yesterday afternoon.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal "preclearance" to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court's 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had "not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility" to pass the bill.

The full roll call on yesterday's vote is online here, and one obvious truth stands out in the tally: Democrats were unanimous in their support for the legislation, and Republicans were unanimous in their opposition.

To be sure, the partisan division surprised no one. Yesterday's vote went exactly as every observer expected.

But the fact that outcome was predictable does not mean it was unimportant. Indeed, in the not-too-distant past, the Voting Rights Act was a rare area of bipartisan agreement. As recently as 2006, when Congress reauthorized the measure first approved in 1965, the vote in the House was 390 to 33, with nearly 200 votes from GOP lawmakers. In the Senate, the reauthorization passed 98 to 0. Not even the most conservative Senate Republicans wanted to be seen as opponents of the Voting Rights Act.

The president who signed it into law was none other than George W. Bush, who held a big public ceremony at the White House to celebrate the extension of one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivered remarks on the Senate floor when the bill passed, touting his support for the law.

"I happen to have been there the day the original voting rights bill was signed," the Kentuckian said, adding, "We have, of course, renewed the Voting Rights Act periodically since that time, overwhelmingly, and on a bipartisan basis, year after year after year because members of Congress realize this is a piece of legislation which has worked. And one of my favorite sayings that many of us use from time to time is, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"

McConnell went to say, "This is a good piece of legislation which has served an important purpose over many years."

Seven years later, Republican-appointed justices on the Supreme Court took a sledgehammer to the Voting Rights Act. In the aftermath, GOP lawmakers who didn't want to be held responsible for damaging the landmark law took advantage of the political opportunity created by the high court: Republicans could simply keep the post-ruling status quo in place indefinitely, and exploit the new legal landscape to tilt the democracy in their favor.

It's why the grand total of GOP lawmakers in the House who voted yesterday to restore and reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act was zero. None of the so-called "moderates." None who voted to certify the results of the 2020 presidential election. None of the members who voted for Donald Trump's impeachment.

In 2006, 192 House Republicans were only too pleased to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act. Fifteen years later, literally no one in the House GOP conference was willing to back the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

The bill now heads to the evenly divided U.S. Senate, where it faces an inevitable Republican filibuster, notwithstanding the unanimous vote to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

But all hope is not lost, at least not yet. Two weeks ago, as the Senate wrapped up its work ahead of its summer break, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke about detailed talks with a group of Democratic senators -- Minnesota's Amy Klobuchar, Oregon's Jeff Merkley, West Virginia's Joe Manchin, Georgia's Raphael Warnock, California's Alex Padilla, Virginia's Tim Kaine, Maine's Angus King, and Montana's Jon Tester -- on a new, compromise voting rights bill, which would presumably include elements featured in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

As we discussed at the time, Schumer concluded that the group has made "a great deal of progress" on a bill, and voting rights will be the first matter of legislative business when the Senate returns to session next month.

There's no reason to believe Republicans senators will ever budge on protecting voting rights, and no bill, no matter how narrow or carefully tailored, will overcome a GOP filibuster. But the fact that these senators continue to work on this legislation is notable in its own right. Whether or not you always agree with the relevant players, these senators aren't dumb. They're well aware of the legislative arithmetic, and it seems unlikely that they'd invest time and energy into an important bill that was doomed from the outset.

It's against this backdrop that the senators have dug in anyway. Watch this space.