This week’s House debate on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which passed on a 219-212 party-line vote, was a reprise of past legislative wars on voting rights. It was a disgusting sight to behold.
The Lewis Act itself is straightforward. It strengthens the Voting Rights Act of 1965 against the onslaught of voter suppression measures that many states passed following the 2020 elections. It also restores enforcement mechanisms that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013.
But when the John R. Lewis Act reached the House floor Tuesday, a host of Republicans weighed in against the measure hurling objections that were as old and as specious as arguments made by Southern lawmakers against the original Voting Rights Act.
Fifty-six years ago, faced with compelling evidence of blatant discrimination against Black voters — as well as a nationally televised attack by Alabama state troopers on the peaceful participants in a march from Selma to Montgomery that left civil rights leader John Lewis with a cracked skull — Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina argued that passing the Voting Rights Act would make Congress “the final resting place of the Constitution and the rule of law.” Thurmond said. “For it is here that they will have been buried with shovels of emotion under piles of expediency in the year of our Lord, 1965.”
Sen. Lister Hill, D-Ala., denounced the act as a “head-on rush to the destruction of the basic rights of the individual states and the liberties of the American people to satisfy the demands, the clamor, and the expediency of the day.” He continued: “Never in my more than 40 years in Congress have I seen a measure come before this body that has had such built-in potential for the destruction of our constitutional system and the breakdown of law and order as the pending bill.”
The Voting Rights Act passed the Senate in May 1965, and the House followed suit on July 9, 1965. Ninety-seven Southern federal lawmakers voted no.
Fast forward to 2021.
House Democrats had compiled compelling evidence that the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision eviscerating the Voting Rights Act prompted states with discriminatory records, that were previously covered by the law, to enact measures that restricted voting. They had also collected data showing that Republican-led state legislatures have been passing restrictive election laws that disproportionately impacted Black and brown voters.
Confronted last Tuesday with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would help correct those wrongs, House Republicans fell back on Thurmond and Hill’s line of attack.
“If you vote for this legislation, you are voting for a federal takeover of elections,” said Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. “You are removing the people elected at the state and local level to run elections from making decisions about how elections are run, including voter ID laws, and putting an unaccountable, unelected election czar at the DOJ, the attorney general, in charge of all election decisions in this country.”
Said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio: “This bill is not about expanding voting rights; it is about Democrats consolidating their political power. That is why they are focused on this. They are focused on consolidating their power and, I think, taking it away from the states.”
“(The Lewis bill) is a radical, unprecedented federal power grab by unaccountable bureaucrats in Washington that every conscientious American ought to oppose,” said Mike Johnson, R-La.
“This bill would comprehensively transfer the power to govern elections in this country from the sovereign states to the federal government permanently and everywhere,” said Dan Bishop. R-N.C.
Hill, who never supported a civil rights bill during his 45 years in Congress, couldn’t have said it any better.
Still, for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, worse days may be yet to come.
Recall what happened earlier this month, when Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) sought last-minute unanimous consent to have the Senate debate — not pass, but just consider — the For the People Act. Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz took to the Senate floor to thwart it. “This bill would constitute a federal government takeover of elections,” Cruz said.
Other Republican senators haven’t had to say much about the act yet, because they don’t have to — they’ve got Mitch McConnell.
The Senate Republican leader from Kentucky has already voiced his opposition to the John Lewis bill, calling it “unnecessary.” He echoes the cry of Thurmond, Hill and present-day House Republicans who charge that voting rights legislation gives Washington too much power when it comes to determining voting and election systems. And McConnell plans to use the filibuster, if necessary, to kill the Lewis bill in its tracks.
Who will be in the corner of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act when the roll is called in the Senate?
President Lyndon Johnson, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a phalanx of civil rights groups and Americans aroused by injustice, were on hand in 1965.
Where stands America now?