House passes voting rights legislation; fate in Senate uncertain

Shenita Binns, left, and her daughter Ysrael Binns, second from left, of Atlanta, participate in a “Freedom Friday March” protest at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on August 6, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images/TNS)
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Jarrell Dillard Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — House Democrats, moving to counter a wave of Republican state-level initiatives to restrict ballot access, passed legislation to restore portions of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, adding pressure on the U.S. Senate to break a logjam on the issue.

The 219-212 party-line House vote Tuesday heightens the stakes as the Senate prepares to take up voting rights legislation after it returns in September from its summer break. Civil rights leaders and progressive groups are demanding the Senate eliminate or carve out a new exception to its traditional filibuster rule if the Republican minority uses the provision to block protection of what they consider fundamental constitutional rights.

Many Democrats and and party activists see new federal voting rights legislation as a last chance to prevent Republicans from enacting a wave of ballot restrictions and gerrymandering that will systemically disadvantage Democrats for years to come.

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“I think all of us know our country has a history of voter suppression and voter denial” Democratic Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina said during the debate.

No Republicans in the House voted for the bill, underscoring the challenge in the Senate, where support from 10 of the chamber’s 50 Republicans would be needed to overcome a filibuster. GOP lawmakers accused Democrats of trying to orchestrate a federal takeover of elections for their own political benefit.

“Not a scintilla of evidence is presented that voters are being suppressed,” Louisiana Republican Rep. Mike Johnson said. “It’s never been easier in America to vote.”

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named after the late Georgia congressman and civil rights figure, would revive parts of the 1965 law that were stripped by recent Supreme Court decisions. The legislation would restore and strengthen a requirement that jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination first get “preclearance” from the Justice Department or a federal court for voting rules changes to assure they don’t harm minority voters. It would also establish a process for review of claims of vote dilution and denial.

The House vote on the measure was part of a deal reached earlier in the day between Democratic leaders and moderates to adopt the Senate’s $3.5 trillion and set a late September deadline for a vote on a bipartisan infrastructure plan.

The fight over ballot restrictions flared over the summer as Democratic lawmakers in Texas fled the state for 38 days to delay action on a slate of new limits on voting in that state. Republican legislatures around the country have been seeking to limit voting access, arguing the changes are needed for election security purposes following former President Donald Trump’s false charges that he was denied a re-election victory because of voting fraud.

Senate Republicans’ opposition to enhanced federal protection of voting rights has stalled measures Democrats wanted to have enacted before the 2022 midterm elections.

The Senate is scheduled to take up a broader election overhaul upon its return, the For the People Act, which would set a new national standard to make it easier to vote, end partisan gerrymandering and combat dark money in politics. The House passed a version of that legislation in March.

A group of eight senators is working on a compromise that could be considered in its place, though it is unclear if even a compromise could attract enough Republican support.

Despite the demands from progressive groups to carve out an exception to the filibuster if it becomes an obstacle to voting rights legislation, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a Democratic moderate, said he would not support an exemption.

Civil-rights leaders Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III are leading a march on Saturday in Washington to demand that Congress pass both voting rights laws. More than 100 progressive and civil rights groups will participate including the Drum Major Institute, Sharpton’s National Action Network, March On and 51 for 51.

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