As Democracy Comes Under Attack, Congress Must Restore and Modernize the Voting Rights Act

Light blue background with black and white toned images of a young John Lewis and one when he's older in Congress with his eyes closed and hands crossed across his chest. The two images of Lewis are surrounded by signs that read "We Demand Voting Rights Now", "Protect One Person One Vote" and "Voting Rights Advancement Act #RestoreTheVote"

“It is the most powerful nonviolent tool or instrument in a democratic society.” That’s how John Lewis described our right to vote, calling it, “precious, almost sacred.”

He dedicated his life, as an activist and a member of Congress, to ensuring all Americans can equally exercise that right. Nearly 60 years ago, in my hometown of Selma, Alabama, he and the Foot Soldiers for voting rights shed blood on a bridge to secure the equal right of all Americans to vote.

Their sacrifices brought us the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).

For decades, the VRA blocked discriminatory voting laws before they could take effect. It served as a bulwark against the forces that had, throughout our history, sought to silence and suppress the voices of millions of voters of color — from Latino voters in California, to Native American voters in South Dakota to Black voters throughout the South.

One study showed that during a 24-year period of its coverage — from 1982 to 2006 — the VRA blocked more than 1,000 proposed discriminatory changes to voting laws across the country.

But today, old battles have become new again. Our progress is under attack.

Across the nation, MAGA extremists are working to limit voting access, undermine faith in our elections and dilute the power of Black and minority voters.

Among the most damaging of those attacks — perhaps one of the most damaging decisions in U.S. Supreme Court history — came in 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted Section 5 of the VRA, releasing states that previously fell under preclearance from oversight and unleashing a wave of voting restrictions.

The Court’s 5-4 Shelby County decision eliminated the VRA’s ability to prevent states and municipalities from enacting discriminatory voting laws and unfair maps.

The flood gates opened, immediately leading to a wave of restrictive voting bills, extreme gerrymandering, voter roll purges and polling location closures — all targeting voters of color.

Former Rep. John Lewis, along with generations of Americans, many in my district, fought for the right to vote. They have marched, bled, been jailed and some even died for that right.

In the first five years after the Shelby decision, almost 1,700 polling places were shut down in states previously covered by the VRA, and in the decade since the decision, at least 29 states have passed a total of almost 100 restrictive voting laws. This year alone has brought a near record pace of anti-voting bills, with nearly 400 introduced in states across the country.

Our nation has reached an inflection point.

We must take action to protect our right to vote and our democracy.

Later today, I will reintroduce the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would modernize and restore the full protections of the VRA. States and local governments with histories of discrimination would once again have changes to their voting laws reviewed in order to prevent restrictive, discriminatory voting laws from taking effect.

While a fraction of these anti-voting laws passed since the Shelby County decision have been struck down — such as illegally gerrymandered and discriminatory districts in Alabama and laws that hindered the ability of Native Americans to vote in Montana — those victories have often taken years and drained considerable time, energy, and resources from litigants, voting rights advocates and taxpayers.  

As these laws were fought over in court, voters faced barriers to the ballot box and voted under gerrymandered district maps that denied them fair representation in Congress. A restored VRA would not only have prevented these in the first place, but also allowed voting rights advocates to focus on more insidious and subtle voter restrictions.

Prior to the Shelby County decision, Congress regularly reauthorized the VRA with overwhelming bipartisan support. These reauthorizations were signed into law by Republican presidents. There’s no reason restoring its authority should be any different.

While Republicans veered away from this bipartisan tradition last Congress by opposing the bill in the House and blocking debate in the Senate, this Congress provides a new opportunity to side with the American people and our fundamental principle that everyone has an equal opportunity to have their voice heard and vote counted.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, together with the Freedom to Vote Act, which I introduced along with my colleagues earlier this year, will ensure that every eligible American has access to the ballot box and protect against the anti-democratic attacks in state legislatures across the nation.

Congress should pass these bills without hesitation.

Former Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), along with generations of Americans, many in my district, fought for the right to vote. They have marched, bled, been jailed and some even died for that right.

They overcame barriers and violence to move us forward in this fight for democracy. They believed in the promise of our nation. They believed in the power of “one person, one vote.”

With today’s introduction of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, we continue their work toward building a more perfect union.

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) represents Alabama’s 7th Congressional District and is the ranking member of the elections subcommittee on the House Administration Committee. She is the author of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.