As Congress debates the passage of a sweeping reform invoice concentrating on voting rights, marketing campaign finance, redistricting and ethics, Democrats within the House and Senate have the title of a colleague who’s not with them on their lips.
Rep. John Lewis, who died final yr, devoted his life to increasing and defending the precise to vote. He was attacked for it. And he was elected, partially, to assist protect it. He in the end helped write a part of the invoice that Democrats at the moment are pushing to enact.
“Let me close with this,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the lead sponsor of the For the People Act, mentioned on the finish of his House flooring feedback March 2 earlier than the invoice’s closing passage, “John Lewis, who is not with us anymore, fought for voting rights. He knew the vote was sacred. He told us to keep our eyes on the prize. Today we do that.”
Lewis, a civil rights chief and Georgia Democrat, died on the age of 80 from problems associated to pancreatic most cancers on July 17, 2020. As the pinnacle of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, he was the youngest speaker on the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In 1965, he led the march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama, that left him with a damaged cranium after white law enforcement officials assaulted the marchers. Congress responded to the “Bloody Sunday” assault by passing the Voting Rights Act. As a congressman representing Atlanta for 34 years, he got here to be often known as the “conscience of Congress,” internet hosting members of each events for annual pilgrimages to the bridge in Selma the place, in his phrases, he “gave a little blood.”
In his eulogy for the late congressman, former President Barack Obama referred to as on politicians to “honor John” by not solely passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to revive the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but in addition “to make it even better.” Obama referred to as for Congress to move laws to increase voting rights by making voter registration computerized, including polling areas to get rid of lengthy traces to vote, restoring voting rights to ex-felons and making Election Day a nationwide vacation.
“We should keep marching,” Obama mentioned.
Democrats now have their probability to observe by way of on that promise.
Title I of the For the People Act, which is into consideration in key Senate committees, is sort of totally from Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act, a invoice he launched in each Congress starting in 2012. The invoice expands voting alternatives by mandating states present for computerized voter registration, same-day and on-line voter registration, at the very least 15 days of early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. It additionally gives protections for disabled voters, cash for updating election infrastructure, limits voter purges, requires states to open sufficient polling areas to cut back lengthy traces and restores voting rights to ex-felons.
Heavy Republican opposition and a few Democrats’ dedication to preserving the filibuster stand in its means. But Democrats and activists hope that they’ll do not forget that a revered colleagues’ phrases and trigger ― to not point out the numerous Americans whose voting rights might be impeded with out Congress’s intervention ― are at stake.
“It’s absolutely the case that his legacy lives on here,” mentioned Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public coverage at Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit backing the For the People Act.
Voting Rights Under Attack
Lewis isn’t right here to see the newest huge wave of voter restriction payments launched by Republican legislators sweeping by way of statehouses throughout the nation, together with in his house state of Georgia. But they absolutely would come as no shock.
In July 2011, he delivered a searing speech in opposition to the slew of voter suppression laws on the time, spurred by false allegations of voter fraud after Obama received the 2008 presidential election.
“Voting rights are under attack in America,” Lewis mentioned. “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional rights.”
There had been key similarities then to what’s taking place now. As the 2008 election reached its finish, Republican candidate John McCain claimed at the final presidential debate that Obama and the Democratic Party had been “now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” The declare arose from conservative media, the place the neighborhood organizing group ACORN was mentioned to be stealing the election after studies revealed that lots of its paid voter registration canvassers improperly stuffed out registration kinds as a way to meet quotas.
A court docket acquitted ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) of all legal expenses associated to voter fraud in early 2011, however it was too late to cease the unfold of the voter fraud lie. Polls confirmed that over half of Republican voters believed that Obama stole the 2008 election with the assistance of ACORN. Republicans rode a midterm election wave in 2010 to energy in states throughout the nation and instantly went to work making it tougher to vote. At least 19 states enacted new voter restriction legal guidelines in 2011.
“Representative Lewis received those developments with alarm,” mentioned Wendy Weiser, vp of the Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan nonprofit that advocates for voting rights. “And obviously he had a lot of experience understanding where that was coming from, where that was going and what its dangers were. I think that he fittingly took up that charge again and said we’re not going back.”
Lewis led the trouble to put in writing laws to cease this new wave of voter restrictions on the state degree. He did so below a broader reform umbrella initiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to direct main lawmakers within the Democratic Party caucus to craft options to so-called democracy points: voting rights, marketing campaign finance reform and gerrymandering. Sarbanes, the lead sponsor of the For the People Act, was tasked with tackling marketing campaign finance points whereas Lewis took on voting rights.
But Lewis wasn’t ranging from scratch. The Voter Empowerment Act constructed off of the 2005 Count Every Vote Act, launched by then-Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in response to the panoply of issues that emerged within the 2004 election, which gave Republican George W. Bush a second time period. Their invoice contained most of the adjustments that Lewis would increase on, together with mandating early voting, requiring paper poll information, making Election Day a vacation, ending felon disenfranchisement and setting federal requirements for the variety of polling areas and voting machines out there in every neighborhood.
To start, Lewis convened common roundtable discussions involving voting rights and civil rights teams and different congressional places of work to gather and debate all potential concepts to make voting simpler and to cut back the specter of voter suppression techniques. Groups included the Brennan Center, Common Cause, the NAACP, the Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, NALEO, The Advancement Project, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Under Law, Asians Advancing Justice, and organizations representing Native American and disabled communities.
“I just remember it being a very iterative process by which they worked very closely with outside groups to craft the most robust bill,” Spaulding, who was concerned within the roundtable discussions, mentioned. “Mr. Lewis was very involved in the details, as was his staff.”
The broad coalition of voting and civil rights teams across the desk represented a recognition on Lewis’s half that the work of increasing voting rights within the twenty first century went past the twentieth century civil rights motion’s deal with Black communities within the South.
“There was an understanding that this is a broad-based problem throughout the country,” mentioned Nicole Austin-Hillery, who labored with Lewis’s workplace on the invoice when she was head of the Brennan Center’s workplace in Washington, D.C. “It’s not a problem that’s just in the South. And it’s also no longer just a problem that impacts African Americans, even though I think data would show that it predominantly impacts African Americans.”
The bill-writing course of was not restricted to discussions with Washington-based curiosity teams. Lewis, his workers and people teams spoke to voters within the states to find out about the true issues they’d with how their states carried out elections.
“It was a combination of not only identifying what the lawmakers thought the needs were, but, most importantly, it was about identifying what the voters’ stories were, what their experiences were and then trying to find solutions that met the needs of the voters,” Austin-Hillery, who’s now government director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, mentioned.
With Republicans answerable for the House, Lewis’s invoice by no means made it out of committee.
The ‘Jim Crow Relic’ That Could Stand In The Way
Austin-Hillery went on her first pilgrimage with Lewis to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 2013, simply weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments within the Shelby County v. Holder case on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance part. In these arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia referred to as the landmark legislation handed in response to what transpired on that bridge a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” The portentous arguments earlier than a court docket with a majority of conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents for his or her opposition to voting rights legal guidelines hung heavy over the annual celebration of the struggle for the franchise.
“I asked [Lewis] to describe for me how he felt when he was on that bridge when he was a young man ― when they were attempting the march for the first time,” Austin-Hillery recalled.
“He explained how there was the unknown,” she mentioned. “That they didn’t know what was waiting for them ahead. But he shared that they knew that no matter what lies ahead they had to move forward. That they had to fight because there was nothing more important for a person in the United States than being able to exercise their right to vote. That was the way that each person had a voice.”
Three months later, Chief Justice John Roberts handed down the unknown. In a 5-4 resolution, Roberts struck down the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance formulation and declared that racism in America was no extra: “[T]he conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
States beforehand coated by the Voting Rights Act, these with a historical past of ballot-box discrimination, would now be capable of enact probably discriminatory legal guidelines with out the pre-clearance that meant having to run them by the Department of Justice for approval first. This ruling is why, right this moment, Republicans in Georgia can enact a legislation that reduces voting alternatives and makes it a misdemeanor at hand a voter ready in line a cup of water with out first present process a evaluation to find out if the legislation will unfairly discriminate in opposition to protected teams.
The resolution additionally modified the voting rights agenda for Democrats in Congress. They now wanted to put in writing laws to reauthorize the pre-clearance part of the Voting Rights Act in phrases that the conservatives on the Supreme Court would abide. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) tapped Lewis and Reps. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to develop a legislative repair for the court docket’s resolution. That work would in the end turn out to be the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
But restoring the pre-clearance part would nonetheless not go so far as Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act did in stopping voter suppression measures from being enacted.
“All of this was taken together,” Clyburn mentioned in regards to the mixture of the Voting Rights Act reauthorization and the Voter Empowerment Act.
But Lewis’s invoice didn’t transfer by way of the Republican-controlled Congress. In every new Congress, he launched a brand new model. And every new model contained updates based mostly on the brand new pathways that Republican legislatures had been discovering to limit voting entry.
“The approach that Representative Lewis took over the years was to just keep refreshing the bill to address the most important problems and to use the best available solutions based on the experience of what was actually working in the states,” Weiser mentioned.
After Trump received election in 2016, Pelosi designated Sarbanes as the pinnacle of a Democracy Reform Task Force to convey collectively the entire laws she had requested her caucus to give you again in 2011 into one invoice. This included Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act. That invoice was launched because the For the People Act in 2019 after Democrats received management of the House.
House Democrats handed the For the People Act in 2019, however it was blocked by within the Senate by Republicans. The House handed it once more on March 3. This time it will likely be thought of by the Senate since Democrats received management of the chamber by the slimmest of majorities thanks partially to victories in each Georgia Senate races. Democrats are additionally introducing a standalone model of Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act, now referred to as the John R. Lewis Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Clyburn and Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) within the House and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).
When Obama referred to as on lawmakers to “honor John” in his eulogy for the late congressman, he requested that they move the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, now named for Lewis, and voting rights reforms which can be contained within the very invoice Lewis authored. And he had sharp phrases for the Senate in the way it ought to go about enacting these legal guidelines.
“[I]f all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama mentioned.
The Senate is now barreling towards a showdown over the chamber’s filibuster guidelines because it considers the For the People Act. At the second, the invoice requires 60 votes to beat a Republican-led filibuster. With Democrats controlling solely 50 seats, it’s unlikely to turn out to be legislation with out adjustments to the filibuster guidelines.
Senate Democrats will quickly be confronted with whether or not they’ll let Lewis’s final voting rights push be felled by a filibuster, as so many civil rights payments had been earlier than, or if they’ll heed Obama’s name.
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