Congressional Push To Restore The Voting Rights Act Picks Up

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 06: Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) speaks to the media ahead of the House voting on the H.R. 4, The Voting Rights Advancement Act, on December 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. When the president signs the... WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 06: Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) speaks to the media ahead of the House voting on the H.R. 4, The Voting Rights Advancement Act, on December 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. When the president signs the act into law H.R. 4 will restore the full strength of the voting rights act, after a 2013 Supreme Court decision gutted it unleashing widespread voter suppression. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) MORE LESS

While Democrats’ sweeping democracy overhaul HR 1 has run into likely insurmountable obstacles in the Senate, attention has turned to the separate legislative push lawmakers are making to restore the part of the Voting Rights Act that was gutted by the Supreme Court in 2013.

A subcommittee for the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing Thursday to discuss the need for that provision to — which determined which states were required to get federal approval for changes to their election practices — to be revived. Restoring the VRA has long been on Democrats’ agenda, but the current wave of restrictive voting measures, propelled by President Trump’s lies about fraud in the 2020 election, has added new urgency to that effort.

“Congress cannot continue to let these challenges to the VRA go unanswered,” Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, making an appearance to make an opening statement at the subcommittee hearing, said Thursday.

The hearing comes as some members of the Congressional Black Caucus have suggested, according to a Politico report Thursday, that the VRA restoration legislation — known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act or HR 4 — should take more of a short-term priority over HR 1, which also includes ethics and campaign finance reforms in addition to its national mandates for ballot access.

“I certainly think our focus ought to be on [the Lewis bill] and voting rights,” Rep. Anthony Brown (D-MD) told Politico.

HR 4 has proceeded on a slower track than HR 1 in part because lawmakers want to create a congressional record that will make Voting Rights Advancement Act more resistant to legal challenges like the one that gutted the VRA in 2013.

Thursday’s hearing was part of that effort. The subcommittee’s majority hosted several witnesses to testify about the suppressive voting measures statehouses have passed since the 2013 Supreme Court decision, known as Shelby County.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act is named after the late Georgia representative who, as a young civil rights activist, was famously beaten while participating in 1965 Selma, Alabama march that jumpstarted in the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  Lewis first introduced VRA restoration legislation after previously covered states rushed to pass restrictive voting measures immediately after Shelby County. Versions of it have been reintroduced, but failed to move forward in the House while Republicans held control of the chamber.

According to Politico’s report, the legislation’s drafters are still making tweaks to the version they want to advance now that Democrats have full control of Congress. But some members of CBC are growing antsy, particularly with a redistricting process that, in most states, will start in earnest in late summer. This coming redistricting cycle will be the first one since Shelby County, meaning several states will, for the first time in decades, be able to draw their maps without the federal government confirming that those maps don’t illegally dilute the electoral power of minorities.

There is also a belief among some that HR 4 stands to get at least a few Republican votes in its favor, particularly from the Republicans who supported the 2006 VRA authorization. Republicans have remained united in their opposition to HR 1 and it does not even have the support of all 50 Democrats in the Senate, let alone the buy-in from them that would prompt Democratic centrists to blow up the filibuster to pass it. HR 1, which has already passed the House, will get a Senate mark-up next month. The exact timeline for passing the HR 4 out of the House and getting it over to the Senate remains unclear.

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