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Published on October 18, 2023

Empowering Voters: The John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 1965 Explained

Today marks the first anniversary of the death of Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy has reintroduced legislation to honor Lewis’s legacy, restore the original Voting Rights Act, and combat aggressive voter suppression laws.

Voter Education

Giving citizens the tools to vote and understand their rights is crucial to ensuring fair elections. This includes teaching voters the value of their vote and avoiding voter fraud. It also helps people to recognize what forms of intimidation are used against voters, including gerrymandering and vote buying.

Voter education is a key component of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. To protect voting rights and ensure that everyone can vote, the bill would require states with a history of discrimination to obtain approval from the Department of Justice before making changes to their election laws or procedures. This section would update the formula determining which states and localities must seek preclearance to account for new evidence of discrimination, including the impact of voter dilution from racially polarized voting on the entire state or jurisdiction’s economy.

The bill would also prohibit states from imposing new or increasing existing barriers to voting, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and requirements for photo identification. It would prevent states from changing rules on early voting, such as reducing the number of weeks that people can vote or eliminating evening and weekend hours. 

Voting Assistance

When Congress passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 1965, states with a history of disenfranchisement must get preclearance from the Justice Department before changing their voting laws and practices. This law would update and restore the section of the VRA that was gutted in the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013 and largely struck down this year by the Brnovich v. DNC Supreme Court ruling.

The Act also requires that voting information be readily available and accessible to all voters, including on the Internet. This is integral to empowering all citizens to make informed decisions at the polls. This includes information about candidates, their platforms, and records on issues. Many organizations, such as the ACLU and local boards of elections (in New York City, call 866-VOTE-NYC), provide voters with this information.

The bill also increases the ability to bring civil rights lawsuits to stop discriminatory voter-disenfranchisement practices. This is critical to ensure the Voting Rights Act’s enforcement mechanisms remain effective. The federal government must stand up for the fundamental right of all Americans to participate in democracy without interference. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would strengthen protections against discrimination while creating a fairer and more transparent process for bringing cases forward.

Voter Registration

Despite partisan divides, Congress is expected to introduce legislation to restore, strengthen, and modernize the Voting Rights Act. The bill, which would be named for the civil rights hero who was beaten by state troopers during the Selma-to-Montgomery march, is endorsed by leading voting rights organizations, including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would require states with a history of discrimination in voter registration or election access to get approval from either a federal judge or the Department of Justice before implementing changes in their voting laws and practices. This new framework, which updates the preclearance formula established by Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Brnovich v. DNC, would consider current evidence of discrimination as well as factors like population shifts and changes in economic opportunity to ensure that the formula reflects actual patterns of voting discrimination.

The bill also includes provisions to expand voter registration opportunities, protect against unnecessary and discriminatory purges of the voter rolls, allow voters to use a wide variety of documents to prove their identity, ensure that same-day registration is available, and make it easier for people who are homeless or unemployed to vote. It would also help to eliminate barriers that prevent people who have been incarcerated from voting by restoring their voting rights once they’ve completed their sentence and providing access to mail balloting.

Voting Day

As we mark the 58th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when police brutalized civil rights activists in their march from Selma to Montgomery, we are reminded that our fight for voting rights is over. The Voting Rights Act was passed after Bloody Sunday. It was reauthorized in 1970, 1975, 1982, and most recently in 2007. It requires certain states and localities with a history of disenfranchising voters to receive preclearance from the federal government before changing their voting laws or practices.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2023, renamed from the original “Freedom to Vote” bill in honor of the Congressman and civil rights giant, would restore and modernize the full protections of the VRA that were hampered by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) and Brnovich v. DNC (2021).

It would require states and localities with a history of discrimination in elections to prove their need for continued preclearance before instituting new laws that limit voter turnout or make voting more difficult. It would also set a basic federal foundation for voter access by requiring automatic and same-day registration, limiting polling place closures, protecting against unnecessary and discriminatory purges of voter rolls, expanding early voting opportunities, and ensuring that people can vote by mail. 

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