By Mimi Nguyen Ly
House Democrats late Tuesday passed a voting bill that sought to amend parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in efforts to boost federal control over elections in the United States.
The John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, also known as HR4, passed the lower chamber of Congress by a vote of 219–212 strictly along party lines, with no Republicans in favor of the measure.
The measure was previously passed by the House in 2019, but it died after it was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Democrats on Aug. 17 this year reintroduced the bill, named after the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis who died in July 2020.
Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), the sponsor of HR4, said on Aug. 17 that “old battles have become new again,” that “federal oversight is urgently needed” over the right to vote, and Democrats are “standing up and fighting back.”
Its passage was praised by President Joe Biden, who said it would protect a “sacred right” and called on the Senate to “send this important bill to my desk.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is the only Republican in the upper chamber who has so far expressed support for the proposal. Democrats in the 50–50 divided Senate need at least 10 Republicans to help advance the legislation.
Among a slew of provisions, HR4 would restore some aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA) that were dismantled in two separate Supreme Court decisions in 2013 and 2021.
The first Supreme Court decision is related to the 1965 VRA’s requirement that nine Southern states and parts of six other states needed to get approval from the Department of Justice before changing their voting laws or procedures. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder that the formula used to determine which jurisdictions are subject to this requirement was outdated and unconstitutional.
HR4 proposes an updated formula to determine which states would need DOJ pre-clearance before changing voting laws.
The second Supreme Court decision came in July this year in Brnovich v. DNC (pdf), in which Arizona’s right to ban ballot-harvesting and out-of-precinct voting was upheld in a 6–3 vote. The court ruled that Arizona’s measures did not violate Section 2 of the VRA, which “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color,” or membership in a language minority group.
HR4 includes language that seeks to bolster Section 2 of the VRA, to enable the DOJ to consider a list of highly subjective factors to justify nullifying a state or local election law or procedure.
One such factor is the “extent to which minority group members bear the effects of discrimination in areas such as education, employment, and health, which hinder their ability to participate effectively in the political process.”
Other provisions of HR4 reflect some major provisions of HR1—also known as the For the People Act—such as expanding mail-in voting, legalizing vote harvesting, providing federal tax dollars to congressional campaigns, and banning voter ID requirements.
Senate Republicans blocked HR1 via the filibuster in June.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) subsequently on Aug. 11 blocked the upper chamber’s version of HR1 after Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) tried to pass the measure via unanimous consent, which meant that it could pass without a recorded vote, barring an objection from one senator.