Named for the civil rights icon John Lewis, the bill is narrower than the Democrats’ sweeping elections overhaul that has stalled in the Senate, but faces similar obstacles.
Aug. 24, 2021, 7:19 p.m. ET
The House voted on Tuesday to restore federal oversight of state election laws under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and expand its reach, as Democrats moved to strengthen a crowning legislative achievement of the civil rights era amid a renewed national fight over access to the ballot box.
The legislation, named after Representative John Lewis of Georgia, the civil rights icon, is a linchpin of the party’s strategy to combat voting restrictions in Republican-led states. It would reverse two Supreme Court rulings that gutted the statute, reviving the power of the Justice Department to bar some discriminatory election changes from taking effect and easing the path to challenge others in court.
Up against urgent deadlines before next year’s midterm elections, Democrats voted along party lines to adopt it 219 to 212 in a rare August session, just days after the bill was introduced. But stiff Republican opposition awaits in the Senate, where a likely filibuster threatens to sink it before it can reach President Biden’s desk.
That outcome is becoming familiar this summer, as Democrats on Capitol Hill try to use their party’s control of Congress and the White House to lock in watershed election changes — only to be blocked by their Republican counterparts. In the meantime, more than a dozen G.O.P.-led states have already enacted more than 30 laws this year making it harder to vote.
Frustration with that dynamic has fueled increasingly desperate calls from progressives and many mainstream Democrats to invoke the so-called nuclear option and eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate. Doing so would allow Democrats to move unilaterally without Republican support, but any rules change would require support from all 50 Democrats in the chamber, and key moderates oppose doing so.
Brimming with urgency and symbolism, the debate leading up to Tuesday’s vote only served to deepen a divide between the parties over voting issues that has rapidly widened in the past year.
Democrat after Democrat showed images of Mr. Lewis and warned that the victories for Black voting rights he won after being beaten bloody on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma half a century earlier were once again on the line. They pointed to new rules in Georgia, Ohio, Florida and elsewhere making it harder to vote by mail, to vote early or to register to vote close to Election Day, which they said disproportionately affected voters of color and young people.
“Old battles have indeed become new again,” said Representative Terri Sewell, the Alabama Democrat who represents Selma and wrote the bill in Mr. Lewis’s name. “While literacy tests and poll taxes no longer exist, certain states and local jurisdictions have passed laws that are modern day barriers to voting.”
Proponents of the bill framed it as a vital complement to Democrats’ other major elections bill, the For the People Act, to halt and reverse that retrenchment, which has stalled in the Senate amid a Republican filibuster. Even more ambitious, that legislation would set new national standards making it easier to vote, end partisan gerrymandering and combat dark money.
Republicans, who once enthusiastically supported expansions of the Voting Rights Act, dismissed that concern as hyperbolic and self-serving. Democrats, they argued, were ignoring the nation’s racial progress as justification to allow the federal government to run roughshod over the states and rewrite election rules in a way that would benefit their political candidates.
“Not only is our country not facing a new era of Jim Crow voting laws, as many of my Democrat colleagues have claimed, it is incredibly offensive to lie to the American people to advance a political agenda,” said Representative Rodney Davis, Republican of Illinois.
He cited statistics showing record turnout among Black voters during the 2020 election, a far cry from the small percentages that were able to vote in many Southern states the 1960s.
“We should celebrate this progress, not ignore it,” Mr. Davis said.
Much of the present conflict can be traced to 2013, when a conservative majority of the Supreme Court in the case of Shelby County v. Holder effectively struck down a provision of the Voting Rights Act requiring states and jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices — mostly in the South — to clear any changes to their election rules with the federal government before carrying them out.
The provision had been highly effective, blocking more than 3,000 proposed electoral changes found to be discriminatory during the half century it was in effect and contributing to the statute’s reputation as one of the clearest legislative successes of the civil rights movement. But the justices ruled that the formula used to determine which entities should be subject to such requirements was outdated given the country’s progress, and said Congress would have to update it for it to be constitutional.
In the absence of any so-called federal pre-clearance requirement, more than half of states have enacted laws making it harder to vote over the last eight years. Voting advocates have been just as concerned that in its absence, state lawmakers will be able to use the once-in-a-decade redistricting process that is underway to marginalize voters of color.
Then, last month, the Supreme Court in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee took aim at a separate section of the statute and made it harder to win court challenges against election rules on the grounds that they are discriminatory.
Lawmakers drafted the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to reverse both rulings and spent months collecting a careful legislative record in anticipation that any changes that become law would be scrutinized by the justices.
At its core is a new formula for determining which states and local entities should be subject to pre-clearance by looking at voting rights violations over the last 25 years. At least one analysis suggests eight states — Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas — and a handful of counties would be subject to such oversight.
But it would also require most jurisdictions in the country — not just those with a history of discrimination — to get federal approval before adopting certain sensitive electoral changes, like stringent new voter identification requirements, removing polling places, completing the lines of electoral districts or putting in place new policies to cull voter rolls en masse.
Other provisions tucked in the bill could have a meaningful impact on voting disputes. For example, the legislation would lower the bar for plaintiffs suing to stop elections changes under the Voting Rights Act to win preliminary injunctions to stop them from taking effect until a court can review them. Currently, elections changes that are later struck down can often take effect for months or even years because the lawsuits take so long to resolve.
Elsewhere, the legislation appears to take direct aim at many of the Republican state officials who have used unsubstantiated and often vague concerns about voter fraud — particularly the false claims promulgated by former President Donald J. Trump — to justify locking in new restrictions on mail-in ballots, the use of drop boxes or to cut back on early voting. Merely invoking concerns of “voter fraud” is not enough, the bill says, implying that states would have to provide evidence to back up their claims.
Senators are still negotiating their own version of the legislation and have yet to settle on a date to reintroduce it or call a vote. Unlike the For the People Act, it is likely to attract some bipartisan support — but not nearly enough to pass it.
Only one Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has been willing to attach her name to similar bills in recent years. A spokeswoman for Ms. Murkowski declined to comment on the House version of the bill, but senators told The New York Times earlier this year that she did not believe she could find nine other Republicans to join her in breaking the filibuster to pass the bill.