clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rep. John Lewis’s voting rights legacy is in danger

Lewis was unable to see the Voting Rights Act restored before his death.

Lewis speaks surrounded by US flags and Democratic lawmakers at a podium with a sign that reads “HR 4 Voting Rights Advancement Act.”
Rep. John Lewis advocates for expanded voting rights protections in 2019.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

Rep. John Lewis, who died Friday at age 80, spent decades fighting for civil rights. But he specifically made voting rights a key part of his advocacy — so much so that he risked his life to enfranchise voters time and again, including when he had his skull cracked by law enforcement during a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

Other voting rights advocates were beaten that day as well. Lewis testified about that march — which became known as Bloody Sunday — one week later. Images of the beatings, including a photograph of Lewis being hit on the head by an officer, were seen around the world; video of it was broadcast on television. And public pressure created by the brutality led to the federal government enacting the Voting Rights Act, a measure that empowered Black voters, and helped bring Lewis into government.

“I have said this before, and I will say it again,” Lewis said in June 2019, “The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy.”

Six months after making that statement, Democrats in the House of Representatives passed the Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill intended to restore the vote to Americans — mostly Black, Latinx, and Native Americans — disenfranchised by the US Supreme Court in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, which overturned a key part of the Voting Rights Act that Lewis and so many others endured beatings to bring about. But the legislation has gone nowhere — the Republican-controlled Senate has ignored it.

Because of this delay, and because of Shelby County v. Holder, Lewis’s work to ensure all Americans are able to vote is in jeopardy. This feels especially meaningful in an election year when Americans are faced with a particularly stark choice in presidential candidates — and in which parties will be able to redistrict a given state in an advantageous way if they are in control of that state’s government.

In the final years of his life, Lewis saw repeated erosion of voting rights, including in his state of Georgia, and asked his fellow lawmakers to ensure the fact “some gave a little blood, and others gave their very lives” for voting rights not be in vain. However, little has been done — particularly by the Senate — to protect the value of the sacrifices he made for voting rights.

The voting rights problems of the ’60s and ’70s are the same as today’s

Much recent voter disenfranchisement — from voter ID laws to poll taxes — can be traced back to Shelby County v. Holder, as Vox’s Ella Nilsen has explained:

The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated a portion of the Voting Rights Act relating to a “coverage formula,” which identified certain towns, counties, or states with a history of voter discrimination.

Essentially, if those places wanted to pass new voting laws, they had to undergo extra scrutiny from the federal government — an additional measure to protect voters from discriminatory laws being passed. In its decision, the Supreme Court asked Congress to come up with the standard for a coverage formula, something Congress hasn’t done.

Areas with histories of voter discrimination that the Voting Rights Act covered included some places in the North — like parts of New York — but largely focused on nine states with a history of segregation and racial terror: Virginia, Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Alaska, and Arizona.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts argued the coverage formula was no longer needed because there were lots of lawmakers of color from those states, and because it was “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.”

“Things have changed in the South,” Roberts wrote. “Our country has changed.”

The argument was a familiar one for Lewis, who said in House testimony — in 1971 — “We have to look beyond the glowing reports of a new South. We have to recognize the fallacies of those who would tell us that Federal registrars and observers are no longer needed. We cannot allow ourselves to be duped into believing that, in these so-called new and changing times, the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed.”

Lewis went on to argue, “There are fewer violent tactics, but the subtle and more sophisticated forms of intimidation are still being devised and are quite prevalent.”

Those words are sadly just as relevant 50 years later — new forms of intimidation and disenfranchisement sprung up immediately after Shelby County v. Holder.

As P.R. Lockhart has explained for Vox, lawmakers in Texas immediately rolled out a voter ID law following the 2013 decision, and engaged in redistricting that diluted the power of minority voters. Other states formerly governed by the Voting Rights Act made similar changes, with states like Georgia and Virginia also enacting voter ID laws, which some studies have found lead to minorities being excluded from voting.

While a few of those studies are debated, the intent is clear — for instance, in a 2016 lawsuit, a federal court found North Carolina implemented voter ID laws to disenfranchise black voters with “almost surgical precision.”

Georgia in particular has been criticized for purging voters from voter rolls in recent years. Current Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp supervised the removal of 1.5 million voters from the state registry from 2012 to 2016 while serving as secretary of state, according to an analysis by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. Ahead of the 2018 gubernatorial election, which Kemp won amid accusations of voter suppression — particularly in majority-Black areas of the state — the secretary of state’s office removed an additional 500,000 voters.

Purges like these weaken the political power of communities of color, Lockhart noted, in part because they lead to the closure of polling places, making it harder to vote. And an analysis by Vice’s Rob Arthur and Allison McCann found polling place closures that followed voter roll purges — throughout the country — disproportionately affected voters of color, particularly Black voters. In 61 percent of the counties the authors studied, polling place closures forced minority voters to travel farther to vote than white voters.

Those voters able to make the trip were often faced with longer lines — and during Georgia’s 2018 election, broken machines.

There have been a number of other measures created to disenfranchise minority voters as well, like drawing congressional districts in ways that carefully ensure voters of color do not make up too large a percentage of the district’s residents. Such redistricting was tacitly approved by the Supreme Court in 2018, and a more recent ruling allowed Florida to enact a poll tax for the formerly incarcerated, which means approximately 85,000 people will not be able to vote in November’s election, unless they pay what are in many cases unspecified fines. And, if any of these people decide to vote without paying, they could face prosecution. An analysis by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith found that in many Florida counties, twice as many Black people would be disenfranchised by this rule as white people.

Lewis described similar issues in his 1971 congressional testimony, lamenting that Black voters were turned away from polling places for not having identification to show their age, that some were unable to cast ballots because they arrived at the polls only to find they were not registered as they thought they were — and that those who were able to vote had to face “crowded lines” meant to “discourage Black political participation.”

Lewis gave that testimony while serving as the head of the Voter Education Project, which sought to register Black Southerners to vote. All the problems he cited remain ahead of November’s elections — and with only months to go before voters begin casting ballots, there is little indication lawmakers have any intention of ensuring Black Americans won’t remain disenfranchised.

The problems are the same because Congress won’t act

Voting problems remain because Congress has repeatedly failed to act. Beyond Shelby County v. Holder, voting policy has been shaped in recent years by the courts. As Lockhart noted, lost protections have been restored by cases like the 2016 North Carolina voter ID lawsuit.

For every voting rights victory won in court, however, there are a number of losses, from a North Dakota voter ID law that discriminated against Native Americans being upheld to voters rights advocates dropping a redistricting lawsuit in Georgia after it became clear the long gestating process would stretch past 2021 — when new districts will be drawn.

The onus of creating fair voting laws is on Congress — something Roberts explicitly noted in his Shelby County v. Holder decision, and something Lewis acknowledged as well, arguing in 2019, “The way votes were not counted and purged in states like Georgia and Florida and other states changed the outcome of the last election. That must never happen again in our country. We will make it illegal.”

But many of those who praised Lewis following his death have blocked making voter suppression illegal.

In Lewis’s own state, Gov. Kemp — who, again, has been accused of using his powers as secretary of state to push Black voters off voter rolls and to sway a gubernatorial election in his favor — said he is “praying” for the Lewis family and called the lawmaker “a Civil Rights hero, freedom fighter, devoted public servant, and beloved Georgian.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put out a long statement praising Lewis as an “American hero” who “endured hatred and violence” to “bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles.”

But that praise, many Democrats noted, came as McConnell has blocked all effort to repair the damage the Supreme Court has done to the Voting Rights Act. A version of the Voting Rights Advancement Act was included in HR 1, the first legislation the House of Representatives passed in its current term, and McConnell refused to allow it onto the Senate floor, calling it “offensive to average voters” and saying, “What is the problem we’re trying to solve here? People are flooding to the polls.”

Similarly, the majority leader has refused to hear a standalone version. And he is not alone among his congressional colleagues in lauding Lewis, but participating in the dismantling of his legacy.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy called Lewis “a friend” and a man who “suffered for this nation, enduring what would have easily broken other men, so that future generations could enjoy the full blessings of freedom.”

But McCarthy — like many other House Republicans celebrating Lewis’s life — voted against the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

All this has many of Lewis’s Democratic allies, like Sen. Kamala Harris and Rep. Ilhan Omar, demanding Republicans honor the late lawmaker by finally passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

There is still time in this legislative session for the Senate to take up the bill. If it fails to do so, lawmakers will have another two years to do so, starting next year. Until Congress passes the legislation Lewis spent his final year advocating for, voting rights will remain at risk.

Because as Lewis said in 2019, “There are forces in this country that want to keep American citizens from having a rightful say in the future of our nation.”