House narrowly passes voting rights amendment bill to strengthen civil rights

The US House of Representatives on Tuesday voted 219-212 to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (“the amendment”) in an effort to amend and strengthen the civil-rights-era Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) and to address a history of racial discrimination.

The amendment comes exactly a week after US Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke, submitted a 20-page statement urging the House Judiciary Committee to “implement, enforce, revitalize, and restore” the VRA.

In the statement, Clarke warned that voting rights are under pressure to an extent not seen since the civil rights era and urged Congress to exercise its broad enforcement powers to restore the Act now or risk “backsliding into a nation where millions of citizens, particularly citizens of color, find it difficult to register, cast their ballot and elect candidates of choice…”

Clark also emphasized the need to restore the “preclearance” mechanism of the VRA, which essentially has all but been invalidated by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. Preclearance would authorize the Department of Justice (DOJ) to block a voting change that a jurisdiction failed to show has neither a discriminatory purpose nor a discriminatory effect.

This amendment directly addresses Clarke’s statement by restoring preclearance and establishes certain criteria for a plaintiff to prevail in a “vote dilution” suit. If a plaintiff satisfies the said criteria, the amendment then requires a court to conduct a totality of circumstances test to determine whether there was a violation of the VRA.

The totality of circumstances analysis requires the court to examine with respect to a jurisdiction the extent and the history of official voting discrimination; the extent to which voting in elections is racially polarized; the extent to which voting practices or procedures increase opportunities for discrimination; whether members of a protected class have been denied access to a candidate slating process; the extent to which members of a protected class bear the effects of discrimination in areas such as education, employment and health, thereby hindering their ability to participate effectively in the political process; whether political campaigns have been characterized by racial appeals; and the extent to which members of a protected class have been elected to public office.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. stated of the amendment:

The House of Representatives has taken important action today passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and fulfilling their promise to the nation to restore and strengthen all Americans’ right to vote. This is a critical piece of legislation that fills the gap left by the disastrous Shelby County decision, and it would be an essential tool to fight racial discrimination in voting. We are in the midst of a poisonous attack on voting rights and democratic norms. Republican state legislators across the country are using baseless lies about last year’s election as the pretext to pass a whole new wave of voter suppression bills, the likes of which we have not seen since the Jim Crow Era. It’s clear that these Republicans fear they cannot win fair elections when everyone has an equal say…it’s time for the Senate to step up and act to protect voting rights.

The passage of the amendment went completely across partisan lines with all the votes in favor coming from Democrats and all the votes against coming from Republicans.

GOP Senate Leader Mitch McConnell called the amendment “unnecessary” and warned that it would give the DOJ and the federal government too much power over the states while Democrats, including Vice President Kamala Harris, applauded the passage of the amendment.

The amendment would require the vote of at least 10 Republicans and all 50 Democrats to successfully pass the Senate.