The US House voted strictly along party lines to pass a Democrat-sponsored voting rights bill restoring federal oversight over state election laws, one that has little chance of clearing the Senate.
Named in honour of the late civil rights icon and former Democratic Congressman John Lewis, the legislation was on Tuesday approved by the Democratic-controlled House in a 219-212 vote that saw no support from Republicans, who characterized the bill as a federal power grab that weakens states’ role in regulating electoral processes, reports xinhua news agency.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a major legal weapon Democrats relied on to combat voting restrictions recently enacted in Republican-led states, would reinstate certain provisions in the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 that were cut down by Supreme Court rulings over the last decade, making it easier to block state election rules deemed discriminatory to minority voters.
“Old battles have become new again,” said Terri Sewell, Democrat of Alabama who introduced the legislation.
“I want you to know that the modern-day barriers to voting are no less pernicious than those literacy tests and those poll taxes,” the Congresswoman said.
“And what we must do, as we did back in the 60s, is when we see states running amok, we need federal oversight.”
One of the provisions originally contained in the 1965 law that the new bill seeks to restore requires states and localities with a history of discriminatory voting rules to get approval from the Justice Department before implementing any change to voting procedure.
That requirement was ruled unconstitutional in a Supreme Court decision dating back to 2013, when the justices said the formula used to determine which states were subject to federal clearance was outdated.
The new bill also attempts to strengthen Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which was strengthened by Congress in the 1980s to prohibit states or other jurisdictions from implementing voting laws that discriminate against Americans based on their race, colour of skin or identification with a language-minority group.
Voting rights activists and Democrats said a Supreme Court’s upholding of two Arizona voting rights restrictions in July weakened Section 2, effectively making it more difficult for voters to challenge state voting laws as discriminatory in court.
“It was in my district that ordinary Americans peacefully protested for the equal right to vote for all Americans,” Sewell said during the floor debate, referring to the struggle of the late Lewis and other civil rights activists on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama 56 years ago.
In March 1965, then 26-year-old Lewis suffered a skull fracture after being brutally beaten by Alabama state and local police on the bridge during a peaceful demonstration for civil rights joined by fellow activists.
Five months after what was known in U.S. history as the Bloody Sunday attack, then President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.
Lewis later represented a Georgia State district in the House for over 30 years until his death last Summer.
Republicans in the House unanimously opposed the Lewis bill on Tuesday, with Jim Jordan of Ohio claiming “it’s never been easier to vote in America” and accusing the Democrats of pushing “a false narrative of ‘voter suppression’ in Republican states, while ignoring restrictive voting in Democrat states”.
“I hope my colleagues and the American people will see this bill for what it is: a partisan power grab,” Rodney Davis, Republican of Illinois, said in remarks grilling the bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for bipartisan support for the bill during the debate, but the Lewis bill faces a filibuster in the evenly divided Senate, where endorsement by at least 10 Republicans are needed for the bill to get passed.
As of now, only one Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, appears to be a potential supporter of the legislation.
That means that unless the 50 Democratic senators move in lockstep to seek changes to the filibuster, the path for the bill to clear the upper chamber and land on President Joe Biden’s desk for signature remains non-existent.