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Defending Democracy: SPLC calls on Senate to swiftly pass John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

The U.S. House of Representatives this week took a significant – and desperately needed – step to safeguard American democracy and prevent unnecessary and discriminatory barriers to voting erected by anti-voter state legislatures like those here in the Deep South. We salute the defenders of democracy in the chamber for listening to and standing up for voters here and across the country, particularly Black voters and other historically disenfranchised communities. 

The U.S. Senate now must do its job. If passed by the upper chamber and signed into law, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR 4) will restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 to its full strength – necessary today as it was when the late John R. Lewis and other voting rights activists marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 in Selma, Alabama. 

Among other provisions, HR 4 would restore “preclearance,” the requirement that states and localities with documented histories of racial discrimination in voting receive Department of Justice approval before implementing changes in voting laws and procedures to ensure the changes do not discriminate against voters based on race.

Since this requirement was eviscerated by a 2013 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, states have unleashed a torrent of new measures designed in part to suppress voting by people of color. HR 4 would also restore key protections for voters seeking to challenge discriminatory voting laws in court.  

Recently, we submitted reports to Congress documenting ongoing voter discrimination in AlabamaLouisiana and Mississippi. And earlier this year, we sued Georgia and Florida for elections-related laws passed this year. 

Protecting and strengthening Americans’ right to vote is a popular goal for the American publicfor the business community and for civil society and civil rights organizations of all sizes.  

The members of the House who voted against the bill ignore the fact that reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act have always been achieved through wide bipartisan margins and have been signed by Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George W. Bush. In 2006, a Republican-controlled Congress extended the law for 25 years by a vote of 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House of Representatives. 

As HR 4 moves to the Senate, some senators have already committed to doing everything in their power to oppose the bill – up to and including leveraging a legislative tool popular with pro-Jim Crow senators of the past – to prevent its passage and to further erode the fundamental right to vote.  

To protect the future of American democracy, the Senate may need to make the body majority-rule by abolishing the filibuster. So be it. The danger of not doing so is far too significant for our nation and generations to come. 

The Voting Rights Act paved the way for tremendous gains and true political participation for some of the most marginalized members of our society. Even though John Lewis is not here standing in the flesh with us today, we must continue to invoke his spirit and continue the battle toward justice in the ways he taught us to do. 

Photo at top: Protesters march in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 2, 2021, holding a poster with a picture of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis. (Credit: Michael Nigro/Sipa USA)