The House is expected to vote on Tuesday to restore federal oversight of state election laws, as Democrats begin a push to strengthen the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act amid a national fight over access to the ballot box.
Democrats view the legislation, named after the late civil rights icon Representative John Lewis of Georgia, as a linchpin in their battle against voting restrictions in Republican-led states. It would reverse two Supreme Court rulings that gutted the statute, reviving the power of the Justice Department to bar some discriminatory election changes from taking effect. It would also make it easier for voters to bring legal challenges to balloting rules that are already on the books.
Up against urgent deadlines ahead of next year’s midterm elections, Democrats were expected to adopt the measure along party lines during a rare August session, just days after the bill was introduced. But stiff Republican opposition awaits in the Senate, where a likely filibuster threatens to sink the bill before it can reach President Biden’s desk.
That outcome is becoming familiar this summer, as Democrats on Capitol Hill try to use their party’s control of Congress and the White House to lock in watershed election changes — only to be blocked by their Republican counterparts. In the meantime, more than a dozen G.O.P.-led states have already enacted more than 30 laws making it harder to cast votes.
Frustration with that dynamic has fueled increasingly desperate calls from progressives and many mainstream Democrats to invoke the so-called nuclear option and eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate. Doing so would allow Democrats to move unilaterally without Republican support, but any rules change would require support from all 50 Democrats in the chamber, and key moderates oppose doing so.
During the debate before Tuesday’s vote, proponents of the bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, framed it as a vital complement to Democrats’ other major elections bill, the For the People Act. Even more ambitious, that legislation would set new national standards making it easier to vote, end partisan gerrymandering and combat dark money.
“The history of the fight for voting rights in America is long and painful,” said Representative Deborah Ross, Democrat of North Carolina. “It’s up to us to meet the urgency of the moment, live up to our constitutional responsibilities and pass this critical piece of legislation.”
Lawmakers drafted the Voting Rights Act fix to respond directly to a pair of Supreme Court rulings in which a conservative majority invalidated or weakened key portions of the statute.
The first came in 2013, when the justices in the case of Shelby County v. Holder effectively struck down a provision requiring states and jurisdictions with a history of discriminatory voting practices to receive advance approval from the federal government for any changes to their election rules.
The court specifically ruled that the formula used to determine which entities should be subject to such requirements was outdated, and said Congress would have to update it for it to be constitutional. The bill being debated on Tuesday proposes an updated and expanded coverage plan.
The legislation also attempts to overturn a Supreme Court decision last month in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee that took aim at a separate section of the statute and made it harder to successfully challenge voting changes as discriminatory in court.
Republicans have enthusiastically supported expansions of the Voting Rights Act in the past. But since the court’s 2013 decision, they have shown little appetite to revive the portions of the statute that were struck down, arguing that the kind of race-based discrimination that the law was originally designed to fight no longer exists.
Instead of addressing a real problem, said Representative Michelle Fischbach, Republican of Minnesota, Democrats were trying to give the federal government “unprecedented control” to run roughshod over the states and set rules that would be beneficial to their political candidates.
“It empowers the attorney general to bully states and forces those states to seek federal approval before making changes to their own voting laws,” she said.