John Lewis has received a great deal of praise over the last several weeks following his passing in July.
Everyone from former presidents and congressional leaders to the innumerable voices in social media have highlighted his legacy fighting for Civil Rights both on the streets as he marched with Martin Luther King and in the halls of Congress where he served as a Georgia Representative for over 30 years.
We’ve heard about his near-death encounter with Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while peacefully marching for the equal right to vote, and his multiple arrests in the name of what he called getting into good, necessary trouble.
What few people may realize is how the very thing for which he fought has been jeopardized these last seven years, and how its restoration formed a driving cause to which he dedicated his remaining years as a legislator and citizen.
In 2013, the Supreme Court removed a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one that required districts with a history of voter suppression to get federal approval, or preclearance, before making any changes to their election laws.
The Court ruled that the provision as it stood was based on antiquated data, essentially stating that the barriers which once disenfranchised Black voters in those districts no longer exist. If the Federal Government wanted to reclaim its oversight, the Court ruled, it would have to do so based on contemporary data.
So while the preclearance provision still exists, it’s no longer being applied, since the specific districts once required to get the federal approval are no longer required to do so. Many of these districts are comprised of southern Black communities.
“Today the Supreme Court stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Lewis at the time of the ruling. “They’re saying, in effect that history cannot repeat itself. But I say come and walk in my shoes.”
While it’s true that the more overt forms of voter suppression are gone–such as poll taxes and literacy tests–many others still remain such as the restricting of early voting, the arbitrary re-drawing of district maps, strict voter identification laws, and the closing of over 1,600 polling places between 2012 and 2018 in those same districts once required to get federal approval before making any of these changes. In Texas, 750 polling places closed following the Court ruling. Most of these closures took place between the 2014 and 2018 mid-term elections.
In December, the House passed a bill to restore the Voting Rights Act. Congressman Lewis led the drafting of the bill, which was based on the updated data the Court had ruled necessary. After the congressman’s passing in July, the bill was renamed in his honor–The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.
It has yet to be passed in the Senate. It currently sits on Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk, as it has for well over 200 days.
Without a Democratic majority in the Senate, and while President Trump remains in office with his power to veto, it is unlikely the bill will be signed into law.
Note: Election Day has yet to be declared a federal holiday, though it consistently falls on work days in which many Americans don’t have the time to get to their polling place and vote. Colombus Day, meanwhile, is still a federal holiday. Let’s all vote this year, yes?
Here are resources to take action.
*The following data was compiled by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a research arm of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights: http://civilrightsdocs.info/pdf/reports/Democracy-Diverted.pdf