John Lewis’s Final Fight For Voting Rights

Democrats' big reform bill contains 300 pages expanding voting rights that were written by the late civil rights leader.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty Images

As Congress debates the passage of a sweeping reform bill targeting voting rights, campaign finance, redistricting and ethics, Democrats in the House and Senate have the name of a colleague who is no longer with them on their lips.

Rep. John Lewis, who died last year, dedicated his life to expanding and protecting the right to vote. He was attacked for it. And he was elected, in part, to help preserve it. He ultimately helped write part of the bill that Democrats are now pushing to enact.

“Let me close with this,” Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), the lead sponsor of the For the People Act, said at the end of his House floor comments March 2 before the bill’s final passage, “John Lewis, who is not with us anymore, fought for voting rights. He knew the vote was sacred. He told us to keep our eyes on the prize. Today we do that.”

Lewis, a civil rights leader and Georgia Democrat, died at the age of 80 from complications related to pancreatic cancer on July 17, 2020. As the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. In 1965, he led the march from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama, that left him with a broken skull after white police officers assaulted the marchers. Congress responded to the “Bloody Sunday” assault by passing the Voting Rights Act. As a congressman representing Atlanta for 34 years, he came to be known as the “conscience of Congress,” hosting members of both parties for annual pilgrimages to the bridge in Selma where, in his words, he “gave a little blood.”

In his eulogy for the late congressman, former President Barack Obama called on politicians to “honor John” by not only passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 but also “to make it even better.” Obama called for Congress to pass legislation to expand voting rights by making voter registration automatic, adding polling locations to eliminate long lines to vote, restoring voting rights to ex-felons and making Election Day a national holiday.

“We should keep marching,” Obama said.

Former President Barack Obama gives the eulogy at the funeral service for Rep. John Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30, 2020, in Atlanta.
Former President Barack Obama gives the eulogy at the funeral service for Rep. John Lewis at Ebenezer Baptist Church on July 30, 2020, in Atlanta.
Getty Images

Democrats now have their chance to follow through on that promise.

Title I of the For the People Act, which is under consideration in key Senate committees, is almost entirely from Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act, a bill he introduced in every Congress beginning in 2012. The bill expands voting opportunities by mandating states provide for automatic voter registration, same-day and online voter registration, at least 15 days of early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. It also provides protections for disabled voters, money for updating election infrastructure, limits voter purges, requires states to open enough polling locations to reduce long lines and restores voting rights to ex-felons.

Heavy Republican opposition and some Democrats’ commitment to preserving the filibuster stand in its way. But Democrats and activists hope that they will remember that a respected colleagues’ words and cause ― not to mention the countless Americans whose voting rights could be impeded without Congress’s intervention ― are at stake.

“It’s absolutely the case that his legacy lives on here,” said Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy at Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit backing the For the People Act.

Voting Rights Under Attack

Lewis isn’t here to see the latest massive wave of voter restriction bills introduced by Republican legislators sweeping through statehouses across the country, including in his home state of Georgia. But they surely would come as no surprise.

In July 2011, he delivered a searing speech against the slew of voter suppression legislation at the time, spurred by false allegations of voter fraud after Obama won the 2008 presidential election.

“Voting rights are under attack in America,” Lewis said. “There’s a deliberate and systematic attempt to prevent millions of elderly voters, students, minority and low-income voters from exercising their constitutional rights.”

There were key similarities then to what’s happening now. As the 2008 election reached its end, Republican candidate John McCain claimed at the final presidential debate that Obama and the Democratic Party were “now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.” The claim arose from conservative media, where the community organizing group ACORN was said to be stealing the election after reports revealed that many of its paid voter registration canvassers improperly filled out registration forms in order to meet quotas.

A court acquitted ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) of all criminal charges related to voter fraud in early 2011, but it was too late to stop the spread of the voter fraud lie. Polls showed that over half of Republican voters believed that Obama stole the 2008 election with the help of ACORN. Republicans rode a midterm election wave in 2010 to power in states across the country and immediately went to work making it harder to vote. At least 19 states enacted new voter restriction laws in 2011.

AME Bishop Vashti McKenzie, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) head down Atlanta's Martin Luther King Boulevard during the Keep the Vote Alive March and Rally on Aug. 6, 2005. The historic 1965 Voting Rights Act is up for renewal in Congress.
AME Bishop Vashti McKenzie, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) head down Atlanta's Martin Luther King Boulevard during the Keep the Vote Alive March and Rally on Aug. 6, 2005. The historic 1965 Voting Rights Act is up for renewal in Congress.
Barry Williams via Getty Images

“Representative Lewis received those developments with alarm,” said Wendy Weiser, vice president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a bipartisan nonprofit that advocates for voting rights. “And obviously he had a lot of experience understanding where that was coming from, where that was going and what its dangers were. I think that he fittingly took up that charge again and said we’re not going back.”

Lewis led the effort to write legislation to stop this new wave of voter restrictions at the state level. He did so under a broader reform umbrella initiated by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to direct leading lawmakers in the Democratic Party caucus to craft solutions to so-called democracy issues: voting rights, campaign finance reform and gerrymandering. Sarbanes, the lead sponsor of the For the People Act, was tasked with tackling campaign finance issues while Lewis took on voting rights.

But Lewis wasn’t starting from scratch. The Voter Empowerment Act built off of the 2005 Count Every Vote Act, introduced by then-Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) in response to the panoply of problems that emerged in the 2004 election, which gave Republican George W. Bush a second term. Their bill contained many of the changes that Lewis would expand on, including mandating early voting, requiring paper ballot records, making Election Day a holiday, ending felon disenfranchisement and setting federal standards for the number of polling locations and voting machines available in each community.

To begin, Lewis convened regular roundtable discussions involving voting rights and civil rights groups and other congressional offices to collect and debate all potential ideas to make voting easier and to reduce the threat of voter suppression tactics. Groups included the Brennan Center, Common Cause, the NAACP, the Legal Defense Fund, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, NALEO, The Advancement Project, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Asians Advancing Justice, and organizations representing Native American and disabled communities.

“I just remember it being a very iterative process by which they worked very closely with outside groups to craft the most robust bill,” Spaulding, who was involved in the roundtable discussions, said. “Mr. Lewis was very involved in the details, as was his staff.”

The broad coalition of voting and civil rights groups around the table represented a recognition on Lewis’s part that the work of expanding voting rights in the 21st century went beyond the 20th century civil rights movement’s focus on Black communities in the South.

Nicole Austin-Hillery, Human Rights Watch's first executive director for the United States, was among those who worked with Lewis's office on the Voter Empowerment Act.
Nicole Austin-Hillery, Human Rights Watch's first executive director for the United States, was among those who worked with Lewis's office on the Voter Empowerment Act.
Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“There was an understanding that this is a broad-based problem throughout the country,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, who worked with Lewis’s office on the bill when she was head of the Brennan Center’s office in Washington, D.C. “It’s not a problem that’s just in the South. And it’s also no longer just a problem that impacts African Americans, even though I think data would show that it predominantly impacts African Americans.”

The bill-writing process was not limited to discussions with Washington-based interest groups. Lewis, his staff and those groups spoke to voters in the states to learn about the real problems they had with how their states conducted elections.

“It was a combination of not only identifying what the lawmakers thought the needs were, but, most importantly, it was about identifying what the voters’ stories were, what their experiences were and then trying to find solutions that met the needs of the voters,” Austin-Hillery, who is now executive director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, said.

With Republicans in control of the House, Lewis’s bill never made it out of committee.

The ‘Jim Crow Relic’ That Could Stand In The Way

Austin-Hillery went on her first pilgrimage with Lewis to Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge in March 2013, just weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the Shelby County v. Holder case on the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance section. In those arguments, Justice Antonin Scalia called the landmark law passed in response to what transpired on that bridge a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.” The portentous arguments before a court with a majority of conservative justices appointed by Republican presidents for their opposition to voting rights laws hung heavy over the annual celebration of the fight for the franchise.

“I asked [Lewis] to describe for me how he felt when he was on that bridge when he was a young man ― when they were attempting the march for the first time,” Austin-Hillery recalled.

“He explained how there was the unknown,” she said. “That they didn’t know what was waiting for them ahead. But he shared that they knew that no matter what lies ahead they had to move forward. That they had to fight because there was nothing more important for a person in the United States than being able to exercise their right to vote. That was the way that each person had a voice.”

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., arm in arm with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leads marchers as they begin the march from Brown's Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. John Lewis, in a light-colored coat, joins the front line.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., arm in arm with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, leads marchers as they begin the march from Brown's Chapel Church in Selma, Alabama, on March 21, 1965. John Lewis, in a light-colored coat, joins the front line.
William Lovelace via Getty Images

Three months later, Chief Justice John Roberts handed down the unknown. In a 5-4 decision, Roberts struck down the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance formula and declared that racism in America was no more: “[T]he conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”

States previously covered by the Voting Rights Act, those with a history of ballot-box discrimination, would now be able to enact potentially discriminatory laws without the pre-clearance that meant having to run them by the Department of Justice for approval first. This ruling is why, today, Republicans in Georgia can enact a law that reduces voting opportunities and makes it a misdemeanor to hand a voter waiting in line a cup of water without first undergoing a review to determine if the law will unfairly discriminate against protected groups.

The decision also changed the voting rights agenda for Democrats in Congress. They now needed to write legislation to reauthorize the pre-clearance section of the Voting Rights Act in terms that the conservatives on the Supreme Court would abide. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) tapped Lewis and Reps. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) and Bobby Scott (D-Va.) to develop a legislative fix for the court’s decision. That work would ultimately become the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

But restoring the pre-clearance section would still not go as far as Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act did in preventing voter suppression measures from being enacted.

“All of this was taken together,” Clyburn said about the combination of the Voting Rights Act reauthorization and the Voter Empowerment Act.

But Lewis’s bill did not move through the Republican-controlled Congress. In each new Congress, he introduced a new version. And each new version contained updates based on the new pathways that Republican legislatures were finding to restrict voting access.

“The approach that Representative Lewis took over the years was to just keep refreshing the bill to address the most important problems and to use the best available solutions based on the experience of what was actually working in the states,” Weiser said.

After Trump won election in 2016, Pelosi designated Sarbanes as the head of a Democracy Reform Task Force to bring together all of the legislation she had asked her caucus to come up with back in 2011 into one bill. This included Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act. That bill was introduced as the For the People Act in 2019 after Democrats won control of the House.

House Democrats passed the For the People Act in 2019, but it was blocked by in the Senate by Republicans. The House passed it again on March 3. This time it will be considered by the Senate since Democrats won control of the chamber by the slimmest of majorities thanks in part to victories in both Georgia Senate races. Democrats are also introducing a standalone version of Lewis’s Voter Empowerment Act, now called the John R. Lewis Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Clyburn and Rep. Nikema Williams (D-Ga.) in the House and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.).

When Obama called on lawmakers to “honor John” in his eulogy for the late congressman, he asked that they pass the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, now named for Lewis, and voting rights reforms that are contained in the very bill Lewis authored. And he had sharp words for the Senate in how it should go about enacting these laws.

“[I]f all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” Obama said.

The Senate is now barreling toward a showdown over the chamber’s filibuster rules as it considers the For the People Act. At the moment, the bill requires 60 votes to overcome a Republican-led filibuster. With Democrats controlling only 50 seats, it is unlikely to become law without changes to the filibuster rules.

Senate Democrats will soon be faced with whether they will let Lewis’s last voting rights push be felled by a filibuster, as so many civil rights bills were before, or if they will heed Obama’s call.

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