John Lewis’s Last Struggle For Voting Rights

As Congress debates the passage of a sweeping reform invoice concentrating on voting rights, marketing campaign finance, redistricting and ethics, Democrats within the Home and Senate have the identify of a colleague who’s now not with them on their lips.

Rep. John Lewis, who died final yr, devoted his life to increasing and defending the proper 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 shut with this,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the lead sponsor of the For the Individuals Act, mentioned on the finish of his Home flooring feedback March 2 earlier than the invoice’s last passage, “John Lewis, who is just not with us anymore, fought for voting rights. He knew the vote was sacred. He informed us to maintain our eyes on the prize. Right now we try this.”

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 top of the Scholar 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 cops 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 bit blood.”

In his eulogy for the late congressman, former President Barack Obama known as on politicians to “honor John” by not solely passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Development Act to revive the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but in addition “to make it even higher.” Obama known as for Congress to cross laws to develop voting rights by making voter registration computerized, including polling areas to remove lengthy strains to vote, restoring voting rights to ex-felons and making Election Day a nationwide vacation.

“We must always hold marching,” Obama mentioned.



Former President Barack Obama offers the eulogy on the funeral service for Rep. John Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30, 2020, in Atlanta. 

Democrats now have their likelihood to comply with via on that promise.

Title I of the For the Individuals Act, which is into consideration in key Senate committees, is nearly fully 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 strains and restores voting rights to ex-felons.

Heavy Republican opposition and a few Democrats’ dedication to preserving the filibuster stand in its manner. However Democrats and activists hope that they are going to do not forget that a revered colleagues’ phrases and trigger ― to not point out the numerous Individuals whose voting rights could possibly be impeded with out Congress’s intervention ― are at stake. 

“It’s completely the case that his legacy lives on right here,” mentioned Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public coverage at Frequent Trigger, a nonpartisan nonprofit backing the For the Individuals Act.

Voting Rights Below Assault

Lewis isn’t right here to see the most recent large wave of voter restriction payments launched by Republican legislators sweeping via statehouses throughout the nation, together with in his house state of Georgia. However they certainly 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 beneath assault in America,” Lewis mentioned. “There’s a deliberate and systematic try to stop tens of millions of aged voters, college students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional rights.”

There have been key similarities then to what’s taking place now. Because the 2008 election reached its finish, Republican candidate John McCain claimed on the last presidential debate that Obama and the Democratic Get together have been “now on the verge of possibly perpetrating one of many best frauds in voter historical past on this nation, possibly destroying the material of democracy.” The declare arose from conservative media, the place the neighborhood organizing group ACORN was mentioned to be stealing the election after reviews revealed that a lot of its paid voter registration canvassers improperly stuffed out registration kinds as a way to meet quotas.

A court docket acquitted ACORN (the Affiliation of Group Organizations for Reform Now) of all prison prices associated to voter fraud in early 2011, but it surely 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. No less than 19 states enacted new voter restriction legal guidelines in 2011.

AME Bishop Vashti McKenzie, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) head down Atlanta's Martin Luther King



AME Bishop Vashti McKenzie, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) head down Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Boulevard through the Hold the Vote Alive March and Rally on Aug. 6, 2005. The historic 1965 Voting Rights Act is up for renewal in Congress.

“Consultant Lewis acquired these developments with alarm,” mentioned Wendy Weiser, vp of the Brennan Heart for Justice, a bipartisan nonprofit that advocates for voting rights. “And clearly he had a whole lot of expertise understanding the place that was coming from, the place that was going and what its risks have been. I feel that he fittingly took up that cost once more and mentioned we’re not going again.”

Lewis led the hassle to put in writing laws to cease this new wave of voter restrictions on the state stage. He did so beneath a broader reform umbrella initiated by Home Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to direct main lawmakers within the Democratic Get together 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 Individuals Act, was tasked with tackling marketing campaign finance points whereas Lewis took on voting rights.

However Lewis wasn’t ranging from scratch. The Voter Empowerment Act constructed off of the 2005 Depend Each 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 modifications that Lewis would develop on, together with mandating early voting, requiring paper poll data, 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 ways. Teams included the Brennan Heart, Frequent Trigger, the NAACP, the Authorized Protection Fund, the Mexican-American Authorized Protection and Training Fund, NALEO, The Development Venture, the Management Convention on Civil Rights Below Legislation, Asians Advancing Justice, and organizations representing Native American and disabled communities.

“I simply keep in mind it being a really iterative course of by which they labored very intently with exterior teams to craft probably the most strong invoice,” Spaulding, who was concerned within the roundtable discussions, mentioned. “Mr. Lewis was very concerned within the particulars, as was his employees.”

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 concentrate on Black communities within the South.

Nicole Austin-Hillery, Human Rights Watch's first executive director for the United States, was among those who worked with L



Nicole Austin-Hillery, Human Rights Watch’s first govt director for america, was amongst those that labored with Lewis’s workplace on the Voter Empowerment Act. 

“There was an understanding that it is a broad-based downside all through the nation,” mentioned Nicole Austin-Hillery, who labored with Lewis’s workplace on the invoice when she was head of the Brennan Heart’s workplace in Washington, D.C. “It’s not an issue that’s simply within the South. And it’s additionally now not only a downside that impacts African Individuals, though I feel information would present that it predominantly impacts African Individuals.”

The bill-writing course of was not restricted to discussions with Washington-based curiosity teams. Lewis, his employees and people teams spoke to voters within the states to find out about the actual issues that they had with how their states performed elections.

“It was a mixture of not solely figuring out what the lawmakers thought the wants have been, however, most significantly, it was about figuring out what the voters’ tales have been, what their experiences have been after which looking for options that met the wants of the voters,” Austin-Hillery, who’s now govt director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, mentioned.

With Republicans answerable for the Home, Lewis’s invoice by no means made it out of committee.

The ‘Jim Crow Relic’ That Might Stand In The Approach

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 docket 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 known as the landmark regulation 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 battle for the franchise.

“I requested [Lewis] to explain for me how he felt when he was on that bridge when he was a younger man ― once they have been making an attempt the march for the primary time,” Austin-Hillery recalled.

“He defined how there was the unknown,” she mentioned. “That they didn’t know what was ready for them forward. However he shared that they knew that it doesn’t matter what lies forward they needed to transfer ahead. That they needed to battle as a result of there was nothing extra essential for an individual in america than with the ability to train their proper to vote. That was the way in which that every particular person had a voice.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., arm in arm with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leads marchers as they begin the march from Brown'



The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., arm in arm with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leads marchers as they start the march from Brown’s Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. John Lewis, in a light-colored coat, joins the entrance line.

Three months later, Chief Justice John Roberts handed down the unknown. In a 5-4 determination, Roberts struck down the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance system and declared that racism in America was no extra: “[T]he circumstances that initially justified these measures now not characterize voting within the lined jurisdictions.”

States beforehand lined 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 Division of Justice for approval first. This ruling is why, right this moment, Republicans in Georgia can enact a regulation 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 assessment to find out if the regulation will unfairly discriminate in opposition to protected teams.

The choice 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 docket 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 determination. That work would in the end change into the John Lewis Voting Rights Development Act.

However 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 collectively,” Clyburn mentioned in regards to the mixture of the Voting Rights Act reauthorization and the Voter Empowerment Act.

However Lewis’s invoice didn’t transfer via 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 have been discovering to limit voting entry.

“The method that Consultant Lewis took over time was to only hold refreshing the invoice to deal with crucial issues and to make use of the perfect out there options based mostly on the expertise of what was truly working within the states,” Weiser mentioned.

After Trump received election in 2016, Pelosi designated Sarbanes as the top of a Democracy Reform Process Drive to carry collectively all the laws she had requested her caucus to provide you with again in 2011 into one invoice. This included Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act. That invoice was launched because the For the Individuals Act in 2019 after Democrats received management of the Home.

Home Democrats handed the For the Individuals Act in 2019, but it surely was blocked by within the Senate by Republicans. The Home handed it once more on March 3. This time it is going to be thought-about 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 known as the John R. Lewis Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Clyburn and Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) within the Home and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).

When Obama known as on lawmakers to “honor John” in his eulogy for the late congressman, he requested that they cross 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, one other Jim Crow relic, as a way to safe the God-given rights of each American, then that’s what we should always do,” Obama mentioned.

The Senate is now barreling towards a showdown over the chamber’s filibuster guidelines because it considers the For the Individuals Act. For the time being, the invoice requires 60 votes to beat a Republican-led filibuster. With Democrats controlling solely 50 seats, it’s unlikely to change into regulation with out modifications to the filibuster guidelines. 

Senate Democrats will quickly be confronted with whether or not they are going to let Lewis’s final voting rights push be felled by a filibuster, as so many civil rights payments have been earlier than, or if they are going to heed Obama’s name.

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