by Caitlin Oprysko
The House on Friday passed a package of bills aimed at restoring protections of the Voting Rights Act rolled back by a key Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act would, among other things, update the formula used to determine which states must preclear their voter registration practices, require public notice for voting registration changes, and allow the attorney general to send federal observers anywhere in the U.S.
The package passed 228-187, with GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick joining all Democrats in favor of the measure.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — a former Freedom Rider who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963 — sat in the chair to gavel in the final vote, prompting a round of applause from his colleagues when it passed.
The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Terri Sewell, whose Alabama district includes Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, called the bill’s impending passage “incredibly personal and special to me and my district.” Sewell has introduced the bill in each of the last three Congresses.
“We protect the legacy of the foot soldiers of the voting rights movement” with the package, the Alabama Democrat said in a news briefing before the vote, which she argued ensures “that voting equality is alive and well today.”
She singled out for praise Lewis, one such “foot soldier,” who stood by her side during the briefing. “So many of us walk the halls of Congress because of this legislation,” she said, referring to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, before telling Lewis: “To say thank you ... doesn’t seem adequate.”
In brief remarks at the event, Lewis called voting “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in our Democratic society,” but said Friday’s vote came in the midst of an “ongoing struggle to redeem the soul of America, and we’re not there yet."
“While literacy tests and poll tax no longer exist, certain states and local jurisdictions have passed laws that are modern-day barriers to voting,” Sewell said on the floor before the vote. “That is why it is critically important that we fully restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act by passing H.R. 4.”
Speaking on the House floor before the vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued that the legislation merely made “improvements insisted upon” by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in the 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder. House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the bill restores the “central enforcement tool of that critical statute” in reference to the landmark civil rights legislation.
Republicans have largely dismissed the legislation as a messaging bill, and House Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins (R-Ga.) pointed out that the White House has threatened to veto the measure, though he added he was willing to work with Democrats on other improvements.
“We do not in this body vote on ideas. We do not vote on thoughts. We vote on words on paper. And the words on paper here do not fulfill what is being said about this bill,” Collins said on the floor prior to the vote.
Still, Republicans took pains to emphasize that their opposition is not to voting rights on the whole, calling the package an attempt at forcing control over state and local elections into the hands of the federal government.
The Voting Rights Advancement Act is a key plank in House Democrats’ legislative agenda — one of a series of bills they campaigned on in their successful effort to take back the House in 2018.
And the package is one of a number of election-related bills the House has passed this year, following its sweeping package of election and campaign finance reforms approved this spring and a foreign election interference bill passed last month.
Democratic leaders have long planned to vote again on key pieces of that bill in a bid to pressure on Republicans while reminding the public about a signature proposal.
But the legislation, like many of the marquee messaging bills the House has already passed this year tackling gun violence, climate change and election interference, will be ignored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has boasted about being the “grim reaper” for Democrats’ legislative priorities.
“We have 400 bills sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a CNN town hall Thursday night. “And he keeps saying, ‘All they do is impeach’ — no, we have 400 bills, 275 of them are bipartisan bills.”
In the prevote news briefing, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate, demanded McConnell bring up the bill and “undo the damage done by the Shelby County decision.”
Heather Caygle and Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.