Within hours of the death of civil rights hero John Lewis, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a generous statement about his late House colleague: "Our great nation's history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it," McConnell wrote.
The Kentucky Republican is right. I urge him to read those words in the mirror, because McConnell himself has the historic opportunity to bend our history toward justice by taking action now to restore a powerful law that has provided some of the most critical voting rights protections in modern time.
Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, spent his life fighting for equal access to the vote regardless of race, which he viewed as "the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy." On Dec. 6, 2019, Lewis held the gavel as the House passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would establish new criteria for determining how states with histories of voting discrimination could change their voting laws.
For decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — passed just months after Lewis and other civil rights activists were clubbed and attacked on the Edmund Pettus Bridge — states and localities with long and egregious histories of voting discrimination had to secure federal "preclearance" from the Department of Justice before they could make changes to polling locations, voter registration criteria and a host of other voting laws. That federal review process dealt a preemptive strike to hundreds of discriminatory voting changes throughout the years, helping to prevent some voter suppression efforts from ever taking root.
But that all changed in 2013, when the Supreme Court issued a devastating 5-4 decision to invalidate a provision of the Voting Rights Act that determined where those preclearance requirements applied. Writing for the majority in Shelby County v. Holder, Chief Justice John Roberts claimed that the Voting Rights Act relied on outdated data to determine which states and counties should be subject to preclearance.
After that ruling, the states and localities that once had to meet the preclearance requirements — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia and some counties and townships in places like California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota — were suddenly free to enact whatever voting laws they liked without first obtaining federal approval.
In the years since the Shelby County decision, we have seen an almost unprecedented onslaught of voter suppression. Texas announced a strict new photo ID law within hours of the ruling. Shortly after, North Carolina sought to curtail early voting and adopt a photo ID law. Officials across Georgia sought to purge voters from the registration rolls, move polling sites to hostile locations or shutter polling sites to make it harder to vote on Election Day. Nearly 1,200 polling sites — many in Black and Latino communities — were closed between the 2014 and 2018 midterms in states formerly subject to preclearance.
Even now, as the country wrestles with a pandemic that has upended life and our election system, we are continuing to see the corrosive legacy of the Shelby County decision. Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and other states once subject to preclearance are refusing to make it easier to vote by mail during a pandemic — and, in some cases, actually making it harder. Their actions have a starker impact on Black and Latino voters who are disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and in greater need of access to absentee ballots.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act would respond to the proliferation of voter suppression efforts by creating a new formula to determine which states must get preclearance before changing voting laws. The House held numerous hearings last year documenting an extensive record of ongoing voting discrimination that makes clear the continuing need for the federal review process. Once passed, the bill would finally get the federal government back into the business of ensuring our democracy is fair and equitable.
But McConnell continues to ignore this ongoing threat to our democracy as the bill gathers dust in the legislative graveyard that is the U.S. Senate. His hostility is remarkable given that back in 2006, Congress had previously renewed the federal review provision by a 390-33 vote in the House and unanimous 98-0 vote in the Senate.
Lewis knew how vital this bill was to safeguarding democracy. He banged the gavel down hard as he announced its passage in the House.
That was one of his final public acts as a congressman. Less than three weeks later, he announced he was being treated for pancreatic cancer.
It is up to those of us who stand on Lewis' shoulders to carry on his legacy. However, it is time for Senate Majority Leader McConnell to do his part and bring the Voting Rights Advancement Act forward for a hearing and a vote.
Kristen Clarke is the president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. She wrote this for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter: @KristenClarkeJD
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