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Texas Voting Rights Attacks Warrant Congressional Action

John Lewis painted on a mural in Washington, DC
On the first anniversary of John Lewis’ passing, attacks on voting rights throughout the nation are still happening. Congress and President Biden must act.
John Lewis painted on a mural in Washington, DC
Sophia Lin Lakin,
ACLU Voting Rights Project
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July 16, 2021

Earlier this week, Texas Democrats fled the state in a last-ditch effort to prevent the passage of a restrictive new voting law by the Republican-controlled legislature. At the same time, Hervis Rogers, a 62-year-old Black man, was recently charged with two counts of illegal voting in Texas. After waiting more than a year, the state now claims that Rogers voted in the 2018 and 2020 elections while he was still on parole. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of the death of civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis, and the actions of Texas officials underscore that his march for justice must continue — the right to vote is still severely under attack. Congressman Lewis dedicated his life to expanding access to the ballot box. In his early adulthood, Lewis was the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization that fought to ensure President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law.

The VRA is a landmark piece of federal legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting. In March 1965, Lewis put his life on the line, leading a historic march calling for the passage of the VRA on Edmund Pettus Bridge. State troopers and police violently attacked the marchers for protesting the horrific racial segregation happening around the country. Following the horror of “Bloody Sunday,” President Johnson sent a voting rights bill to Congress where it was eventually passed as the VRA in August of that year. This legislation, which for so long protected the right to vote for communities of color across the country, was weakened by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

Prior to this decision, states and counties with the worst histories and recent records of voting discrimination had to obtain federal “preclearance” — that is, approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court — before implementing any changes to voting laws and practices, to ensure they did not curtail the right to vote. Shelby County struck down the formula used to identify which states were required to do so, gutting the heart of the VRA, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement.

After Shelby County, the attacks on the right to vote have only increased, and not just in Texas. This year alone, more than 400 voter suppression bills have been introduced in 47 states. These bills seek to make it more difficult for people to register to vote, vote by mail, or vote in person. Many place a disproportionate burden on communities of color. And, earlier this month, the Supreme Court dealt another blow to the critical protections provided in the VRA. In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the court erected significant new barriers to lawsuits brought under Section 2 of the VRA. Congress enacted this section to specifically address racial discrimination imposed by voting laws. While Section 2 remains as a means to combat racial discrimination in voting, the court has made those challenges much more difficult, potentially insulating all but the most egregious and obviously discriminatory laws and practices.

To address the severity of these attacks on the ballot box in Texas and around the country, Congress must pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This critical legislation would restore the pre-clearance regime. On the first anniversary of Congressman Lewis’s passing, and as we reflect on his magnanimous life, Congress must continue John Lewis’s march for justice by passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to more explicitly protect the right to vote.

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