Rep. Sewell Introduces H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to Restore Protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
August 16, 2021
Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (AL-07) introduced H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This critical legislation would restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) which were gutted by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision and more recently in the 2021 Brnovich v. DNC decision. The bill aims to protect voters from discrimination by restoring and strengthening the protections of the VRA. The introduction of H.R. 4 comes amid the most coordinated state-level effort to restrict the right to vote in generations and follows a months-long investigation by the House Committee on Administration and House Committee on the Judiciary into the status of voting rights in America. The bill enjoys support from over 190 original co-sponsors including all members of House Democratic leadership. The House is expected to vote on H.R. 4 next week.
“The right to vote is the most sacred and fundamental right we enjoy as American citizens and one that the Foot Soldiers fought, bled, and died for in my hometown of Selma, Alabama,” said Rep. Sewell. “Today, old battles have become new again as we face the most pernicious assault on the right to vote in generations. It’s clear: federal oversight is urgently needed. With the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, we’re standing up and fighting back. By preventing states with a recent history of voter discrimination from restricting the right to vote, this bill restores the full promise of our democracy and advances the legacy of those brave Foot Soldiers like John Lewis who dedicated their lives for the sacred right to vote. I’m proud to be introducing this bill today and look forward to its swift passage. Our democracy is at stake.”
For decades, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) ensured equal access to the ballot box for Black and minority voters by requiring states and localities with a history of voter discrimination—as determined in Section 4—to obtain pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before making changes to their voting laws. However, in its infamous 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down Section 4, arguing that voter discrimination was an issue of the past and that the formula used to determine which states and localities were subject to preclearance was outdated.
On July 1, 2021, in its decision in Brnovich v. DNC, the Supreme Court struck another devastating blow to the VRA, upholding Arizona’s voting laws targeting Latino and other minority voters and making it more difficult for parties to challenge racially discriminatory voting laws under Section 2.
Beginning in April, the House Committee on Administration Subcommittee on Elections held a series of investigatory hearings and collected numerous reports and documents regarding the status of voting rights in America. The hearings culminated in a report which the Committee released on Friday, August 6, detailing modern-day efforts to restrict the right to vote. Meanwhile, the House Committee on the Judiciary also held hearings on the need to protect the right to vote.
Informed by these findings, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore protections of the VRA gutted by the Supreme Court. It would once again prohibit states and localities with a recent history of voter discrimination from restricting the right to vote by including an updated formula for determining which states and localities are subject to federal oversight. It would also amend Section 2 of the VRA to eliminate the heightened standard for challenging voter discrimination that the Supreme Court created in its decision in Brnovich v. DNC.
The introduction of H.R. 4 comes amid the most coordinated state-level effort to restrict the right to vote in generations. Driven by the Big Lie, 18 states have enacted at least 30 new restrictive, anti-voter laws just this year.
A previous version of H.R. 4 passed in the House of Representatives during the 116th Congress by a vote of 228-187, but stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Last year, the bill was renamed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to honor the legacy of civil rights icon and former Congressman John Robert Lewis who passed away on July 17, 2020.
“The House today is taking a momentous step to secure the sacred right to vote for generations to come,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “With the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, proudly introduced today by Congresswoman Terri Sewell alongside Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Democrats are fighting back against an anti-democratic tide, protecting access to the ballot box for every American and carrying on the cause to which our beloved John Lewis devoted his entire life. When the House returns on August 23rd, Democrats plan to pass H.R. 4 – and we hope it can secure the bipartisan support this vital legislation deserves.”
“I am honored to join Rep. Terri Sewell and colleagues in introducing a long-standing priority for House Democrats and a vital tool for the long-term strength of our democracy: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. “Across the country, we continue to bear witness to GOP attacks on voting rights with restrictive laws and voter-ID rules to prevent people of color, students, and others from having their voices heard at the ballot box. H.R. 4 takes the necessary steps to respond to the flawed Supreme Court challenges to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and ensures federal standards to stop these dangerous laws in their tracks. House Democrats will not falter in the fight for the right to vote, and we remain committed to ensuring our democracy can prosper and continue to deliver for the people.”
“Enabled by Supreme Court decisions weakening the 1965 Voting Rights Act, state legislatures across the country are attempting to make it more difficult to vote and easier to overturn election results. These undemocratic measures disproportionately impact communities of color,” said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn. “That is why I am proud to join with my colleagues Congresswoman Terri Sewell and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler to introduce the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. This critical bill will ensure that voting remains a fundamental right of every American citizen and a touchstone of the greatest democracy the world have ever known. Nothing else will matter if we lose the right to vote. H.R. 4 will help prevent that from happening.”
“With dozens of states actively seeking to make it harder for millions of Americans to vote, there has never been a more important time to strengthen the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most sacred texts of our nation’s civic religion,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler. “The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 will not only restore critically important parts of the Voting Rights Act that were dangerously weakened by the Supreme Court, it modernizes the VRA to further protect our citizens’ right to vote from the cynical attacks of governors and state legislators. This legislation is the product of countless hours of hearings in the House Judiciary Committee as well as our colleagues on the House Committee on Administration that documented in exhaustive detail the myriad ways that the right to vote remains under threat for too many Americans. Congress now has the opportunity to make it harder for states seeking to limit voting rights and protect access to the ballot for all Americans. I thank Congresswoman Sewell and the dozens of other members who have worked tirelessly to make the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act a reality.”
“The right to vote is the most fundamental right in our democracy, and it must be protected,” said ??Congressman Steve Cohen, Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “When jurisdictions enact laws that discriminate against minority voters, we know why. H.R. 4 would restore the power of the Voting Rights Act to ensure that every American -- regardless of race, color, or language-minority status -- can cast a meaningful ballot. This bill would update the pre-clearance coverage formula in Section 5, clarify the standards for Section 2, and strengthen the Voting Rights Act in numerous other ways. When more eligible citizens can participate in our elections, our democracy is more representative of and responsive to the people.”
“Today’s introduction of H.R. 4 is an important step forward in fighting for voting rights for all Americans. The Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision took the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said House Administration Committee Chairperson Zoe Lofgren. “It opened the floodgates to new voter laws across many states that will make it harder to vote. My Subcommittee on Elections colleagues, led by Chairman G. K. Butterfield, recently released the report on their substantial hearings on voting in America. H.R. 4 is needed to restore the full strength and protections of the Voting Rights Act and, working alongside H.R. 1, the promise of our democracy.”
“H.R. 4 upholds the legacy of our dear friend Congressman John Lewis and continues his work and the work of generations of Americans like him who fought and sacrificed to ensure equal access to the ballot,” said Congressman G. K. Butterfield, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Elections of the Committee on House Administration. “On the recent 56th anniversary of the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Subcommittee on Elections of the Committee on House Administration released an evidence-based report detailing the ongoing and escalating wave of suppressive voting laws in many states across the country. The report made unequivocally clear that discrimination in voting has intensified since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County and that voters of color face disproportionate barriers to vote in America. Today’s introduction of H.R. 4 honors our obligation to democracy – and to those who have been denied a voice in it – by seeking to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.”
“Access to the ballot box is under unprecedented threat, 56 years after enactment of the Voting Rights Act,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Joyce Beatty. “Since last November, we have seen numerous statewide voter suppression laws spring up across America, threatening to silence the most vulnerable and underrepresented communities. As Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021. The right to vote is the very foundation of our democracy. Generations of brave, patriotic Americans have fought, marched, and shed blood to safeguard and expand that right. In introducing this legislation, House Democrats are honoring our promises ‘for the people’ to safeguard the right to vote for generations to come.”
“Every American should be able to exercise their fundamental right to vote, and it is critical that we protect this sacred right. It is alarming that multiple states have been ramping up efforts to pass restrictive laws that would undermine voting rights and actively create barriers that would keep many Americans, especially minority communities, from the voting booth,” said Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Dr. Raul Ruiz. “I’m proud to support the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 (H.R. 4), which would prevent voter suppression, safeguard the integrity of our democratic process, and ensure all Americans have a voice in our democracy, regardless of where they live.”
“In the 2020 elections, Asian American and Pacific Islander voter turnout increased from less than 2.8 million in 2016 to around 4 million,” said Chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Judy Chu. “This surge in AAPI turnout was significant enough to be the margin of difference in a number of swing states, but it was only possible thanks to support for alternatives to in-person voting. In fact, in 2020, AAPI early and absentee voting increased by 300% in the 13 most contested presidential battleground states. That is why voter suppression laws meant to make it harder to vote are such a threat to AAPIs and all communities of color. At a time when census data prove that our communities are growing, voter suppression laws are increasingly being used to ensure we stay marginalized and silenced. And all of these attacks were made possible by the Supreme Court’s decision to gut Section 5 of the landmark Voting Rights Act. But with HR 4, we can ensure that our government has the tools needed to protect all voters from disenfranchisement. We know that the increase in restrictions on who can vote are directly related to an increase in voting from communities of color. But we will not allow another Jim Crow era. That is why we need to pass HR 4 immediately.”
“No matter our race, background, or zip code, we all value the freedom to vote and believe that all Americans should have a say in key decisions that impact our lives,” said Wade Henderson, Interim President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “Yet, with more than 400 state bills attempting to erect barriers to the ballot box for millions of Americans and a Supreme Court decision making it more difficult for voters to challenge discriminatory laws in the future, the promise of democracy is at risk. We absolutely must come together to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and restore the federal government’s ability to block state and local governments from passing racially discriminatory bills.”
“For decades the Voting Rights Act stood as a singularly effective bulwark against the threat of voting discrimination,” said Wendy R. Weiser, Vice President, Democracy, Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. “At a moment when states across the country are passing laws that make it harder to vote — many of them targeted at voters of color — the need for a robust, revitalized VRA could not be starker. By restoring the law’s core protections, The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would safeguard the right of every citizen to participate in our democracy on an equal footing.”
“Since the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, we have seen a wave of changes to voting policies in states across the country that have had a discriminatory impact on Black voters and other voters of color,” said Lisa Cylar Barrett, Director of Policy NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “This year alone, we have seen the Court weaken Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and 30 voter suppression bills enacted in 18 states, with hundreds more still under consideration. This crisis needs federal action. We commend the U.S. House of Representatives for introducing H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, as a first step in addressing the challenges voters face today. The preclearance provision in the bill essential to slow the spread of voter suppression legislation that denies access to the ballot box for racial, ethnic, or language minorities. We encourage members of the House to swiftly pass H.R. 4.”
“Through our collaborative, intersectional work with community partners around the Deep South, the SPLC has witnessed first-hand continued efforts to suppress the vote and undermine the democratic process particularly for communities of color since the Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013,” said Margaret Huang, President and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center and SPLC Action Fund. “For generations after 1965, legislators of both parties and Americans across all ideologies have supported the Voting Rights Act because they understand that for our democracy to be healthy, every voter in the country must have safe, easy, and equitable access to their fundamental right to vote. Facing Supreme Court decisions that have significantly weakened the landmark law, and a proliferation of state anti-voter laws – primarily in the South – Congress must act to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full vigor and promise. With the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in place, the federal government will again act as a barrier to prevent racially discriminatory voting changes before they can harm voters in jurisdictions with records of present discrimination in voting – like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi – and finally build a democracy that works for us all no matter where we live. Congress should utilize every legislative tool in its capacity to get this done; democracy is too important to be subject to a minority veto.”
The House is expected to vote on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act next week.