Why America Needs the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

A poster of John Lewis that says "Protect Our Vote" on the back of a car windshield along with an American flag
Cars with signage wait in line before participating in the John Lewis Voter Advancement Day Votorcade at the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, AZ, USA on May 8, 2021. Photo by Alexandra Buxbaum/Sipa USA via Alamy Live News

March 7 marks the anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday,’ when Black civil rights champions led by John Lewis, who later served in Congress for 33 years, were violently assaulted by law enforcement while marching for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. 

The brutal footage from that day 59 years ago shocked and galvanized the nation, leading to the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), a landmark civil rights law that transformed American democracy and prevented discrimination against Black Americans and other voters of color in our voting laws. 

But, over the last decade, the Supreme Court has gutted the VRA and drastically weakened its once-successful protections for Black and brown voters — a situation Congress has repeatedly failed to fix despite having the ability do so.     

Now, Congress has another chance.  

Members of the U.S. Senate, led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA), have reintroduced the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), legislation named after the late civil rights icon that would help restore the full strength of the VRA. Their action follows last year’s reintroduction of the VRAA in the House of Representatives by Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) and more than 200 other lawmakers. 

Importantly, the VRAA would reestablish a system known as “preclearance,” which was originally created in Section 5 of the VRA to require that states and localities with a history of racial discrimination get changes to their voting laws approved by the federal government before they can go into effect.    

In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court effectively gutted Section 5’s preclearance requirement, allowing jurisdictions across the country to implement new discriminatory practices such as restrictive voter ID laws, polling place closures and purges of voters from registration rolls — all of which make it disproportionally harder for Black and brown voters to cast their ballots.  

The John Lewis VRAA would reinstate preclearance protections for Black and brown voters, which means that any change to election laws or polling place locations in certain areas of the country would need to be reviewed by the DOJ or a federal court first. 

Additionally, the bill goes one step further by establishing a nationwide system of preclearance to preempt voting policies that have consistently proven to marginalize voters of color and undermine their freedom to vote, which ensures that Black and brown voters won’t have their voices silenced by sudden or unfair changes to voting policy.  

The VRAA would also strengthen Section 2 of the original VRA, another core component of the law that empowers voters to bring legal challenges against discriminatory voter laws. 

While Section 5 of the VRA is designed to block anti-voter laws before they go into effect, Section 2 gives voters the opportunity to sue for relief after they have been discriminated against. Together, they tackle racial discrimination in voting from both ends.  

Despite the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Allen v Milligan, which reaffirmed the validity of Section 2, the current Supreme Court has a poor track record on democracy issues and has weakened the VRA multiple times.   

The John Lewis VRAA would address these concerns by solidifying well-established standards for evaluating VRA lawsuits and provide new protections against discriminatory voting laws. This would help ensure that Black and brown Americans vote under fair maps and with fair rules.  

Free and fair elections rely on every voter having the ability to make their voice heard. The original VRA has helped our country make great strides towards the promise of a democracy that works for all. 

But the time is long past to fully eliminate racial discrimination at the ballot box. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement act is needed to ensure every voter is truly able to make their voice heard. 

Jo is CLC's Director, Legislative Strategy.