The U.S. House passed legislation on Friday that would give the federal government broader authority to police voting rights violations across the country.
Wisconsin’s House delegation, all present, voted along straight party lines, Democrats in favor of the bill, Republicans opposing it.
The vote “is the most important non-violent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society and people should be able to use it, all of our citizens,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said ahead of the vote. “There are forces in America today trying to take us back to another time and another place. But with the passage of this bill, we’re not going back, we’re going forward.”
Friday’s vote comes as House Democrats hope to show they can continue to legislate even as they barrel ahead with an impeachment inquiry against President Trump. But like most of their top priorities this Congress, the voting rights bill faces steep Republican opposition and is likely to go nowhere in the GOP-led Senate.
Still, supporters of the bill hope to put political pressure on senators, and the legislation could be teed up again after a power shift in Congress or the White House.
“We should not let it languish in the Senate’s legislative graveyard,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill said Friday at a news conference. “Bring it to a vote, see if anybody would actually stand up and vote no.” Leahy’s bill has 43 Democratic and two independent co-sponsors.
The legislation, titled the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, comes in response to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Shelby County v. Holder. The court “effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval,” The New York Times wrote at the time.
Critics of the ruling say it has led to an uptick in voter suppression across the country and made it more difficult to enforce fair access to the ballot box.
“As soon as that decision was released, we began to see in state after state a torrent of voter suppression,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Friday.
The legislation that passed by the House, spearheaded by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), would set new criteria for determining which areas have had a recent history of voter discrimination and therefore must get federal approval before making changes to their voting practices.
If enacted, the legislation would require 11 states to require federal approval for changes to state voting laws, according to its sponsors. The 11 states are: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
House Republican opponents of the bill warned that the legislation would unnecessarily limit state and local control over voting.
“Full protections are afforded under the current federal law for all those with valid claims of discrimination in voting,” said Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.). He called the legislation a “partisan bill … to prevent states from running their own state and local elections.”
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) said Wisconsin “really has suffered under the Supreme Court decision of 2013. After that ruling, then-Gov. Scott Walker — someone I’d been fighting since 1990 to prevent him from enacting an onerous voter ID law — he prevailed in 2016.”
Moore cited a University of Wisconsin-Madison study showing that between 12,000 and 23,000 registered voters in Madison and Milwaukee were deterred from voting by the voter ID law. Trump won the state by fewer than 23,000 votes. “It’s important and imperative that we restore enforcement of the Voting Rights Act,” Moore said.
Leahy warned that voter suppression is “alive and well today. … Maybe the water cannons and clubs and police dogs may have been replaced, but they’re replaced by bogus ID requirements, the purging of voter rolls, the changing of voter places. The tactics may have evolved, but the goal, don’t forget the goal: state sponsored systematic disenfranchisement. It remains the same.”
Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.) said the decision in the Shelby case “trampled” on voting rights and unleashed “a flood of state and local voter-suppression laws.” In her home state of Florida, she said, “laws and policies have cut back early voting, established English-only ballots” and thwarted “efforts to restore voting rights to ex-felons.”
The House legislation, Frankel said, “will push back against suppressive voting laws, restoring the great equalizer for democracy and for our people.”
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) called the vote “a reaffirmation of our democracy, a reaffirmation of the fact that all of us … as citizens have the right to participate in this democracy through voting.”
He lamented an uptick in voting requirements, including voter ID laws, voter roll purges and the moving of voting sites. “We should never be afraid of a full and healthy participation,” he said at House Democrats’ press conference.