House Democrats are poised to pass legislation Tuesday that would strengthen a landmark civil rights-era voting law weakened by the Supreme Court over the past decade, a step party leaders tout as progress in their quest to fight back against voting restrictions advanced in Republican-led states.
But the bill, which is part of a broader Democratic effort to enact a sweeping overhaul of elections, faces dim prospects in the Senate Democrats do not have enough votes to overcome opposition from Republicans, who have rejected the bill as “unnecessary” and a Democratic “power grab.”
Their opposition puts Democrats right back where they started with a slim chance of passing any voting legislation because of a Senate bottleneck before the 2022 midterms elections, when some Democrats fear new GOP laws will make it harder for many Americans to vote.
But they still intend to try.
“We must not squander our Congressional Democratic Majorities and jeopardize the once-in-a-generation opportunity to create historic change,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a letter to her House colleagues on Monday.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the late Georgia congressman who made the issue a defining one of his career, would restore voting right protections that have been dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under the proposal, the Justice Department would again be required to police new changes to voting laws in states that have racked up a series of “violations," drawing them into a mandatory review process known as “preclearance.”
The practice was first put in place under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it was struck down by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court in 2013, which ruled the formula for determining which states needed their laws reviewed was outdated and unfairly punitive. In July, a second ruling from the court made it more difficult to challenge voting restrictions in court under another section of the law.
The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Rep. Terry Sewell, said “old battles” from the civil rights era have become “new again,” enabled by the Supreme Court’s decision to weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“By preventing states with a recent history of voter discrimination from restricting the right to vote, this bill restores the full promise of our democracy,” said Sewell, of Alabama.
In many cases, the new bill wouldn't apply to laws enacted in the years since the court's 2013 ruling. That likely includes the wave of new Republican-backed restrictions inspired by Donald Trump's false claims of a stolen 2020 election.
But if signed into law along with Democrats' other election bill, the For the People Act, many of those restrictions could be neutralized — and likely prevented from getting approved again. Both laws would likely face legal challenges.
In the short term, the vote Tuesday was expected to soothe restive Democratic activists who have been frustrated by inaction on the issue in the Senate.
Democrats slim 50-50 majority in the Senate means they lack the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. For months, progressives have called for scrapping the filibuster, but a number of moderate Democrats oppose the idea, denying the votes needed to do so.
It's also not clear that the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, as written, would be supported by all Democrats in the Senate, where there are no votes to spare.
One provision in the bill would ban many types of voter ID laws, including those already on the books. That's at odds with a proposal from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin who is the chamber's most conservative Democrat. He's spent weeks working with Senate leadership to develop a more narrowly focused alternative to the For the People Act, and has specifically called for a voter ID standard that would allow for people to use a document like a utility bill.
Republicans, meanwhile, blast the measure as a departure from the 1965 voting law, which used minority turnout data as well as a place's history of enacting discriminatory voting laws when determining which places would be subject to preclearance.
The new bill, instead, leans heavily on looser standards, such as using the number of legal settlements and consent decrees issued in voting rights cases, to pull places into preclearance.
That would, Republicans argue, play into the hands of Democrats, who have built a sophisticated and well-funded legal effort to challenge voting rules in conservative-leaning states.
“They are trying to write a law so their allies can never lose cases," said Jason Snead, executive director of the conservative-leaning Honest Elections Project, which opposes both of the Democrats' bills. "I don’t see this as a serious proposal. I see this as a political messaging document, a base play.”