Debunking False Claims About the John Lewis Voting Rights Act

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On Thursday, the House passed an omnibus voting rights bill that included the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, an effort to restore and revitalize the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA). The bill is now before the Senate, where despite bipartisan support, it faces an uncertain future due to the filibuster.

The VRA was the most successful civil rights legislation in our country’s history until the Supreme Court gutted it in Shelby County vs. Holder in 2013. The Court further weakened the law’s protections against voter discrimination in another case in 2022 by Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee.

Now we are in the midst of a crisis. The nation faces a wave of voting restrictions and redistricting abuses, which often target communities of color. We need a full-fledged voting rights law to stop this suppression from happening and root it out quickly where it is happening.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the law to full force, in part by once again requiring states with a history of voter discrimination to receive Justice Department or federal court approval before to enact voting changes. Nevertheless, Republicans in Congress and their allies in the states oppose it. These opponents have now argued their case in multiple congressional hearings, including a hearing on October 6, 2021 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

They don’t — and can’t — offer reasoned explanations why the law’s protections are less important now than they were in 2006, when it was reauthorized with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress. . Instead, they offer a combination of misinformation and a regurgitation of criticism leveled against the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Their claims are false, and many rely on blatantly false statements.

MYTH: The bill is a federal election takeover

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called the John Lewis Voting Rights Act a “power grab” designed to let “unelected bureaucrats . . . tear down . . . laws enacted by democratically elected legislatures in States, he says, “an unelected bureaucrat” can “say hell with democracy” and repeal laws on a whim.

This argument is incorrect for three reasons. First, the DOJ would play the same role under the John Lewis Voting Rights Act that it played so successfully for nearly five decades under the Voting Rights Act. Criticizing the DOJ’s authority under the bill is just a rehash of an argument made against the original voting rights law.

In 1965, segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina also argued that the bill would result in “despotism and tyranny” if passed. Not only is it wrong to describe the restoration of a decades-old practice as a “federal takeover,” but it is absurd to claim that it undermines democracy when it is universally accepted that the preclearance process has been extremely effective in eradicating discrimination and improving our democracy. Even Chuck Grassley (R-IA), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, acknowledged that preclearance “works wonders.”

Second, a state or subdivision does not have to involve the DOJ in the preclearance process. He can take his case directly to federal court. If a state requests DOJ approval and the DOJ denies the request, the state can still take its case to court.

Third, the DOJ’s review power is limited. He only needs to consider whether the proposed change to voting rules would discriminate against minority voters — an outcome that would violate the Constitution or federal law. The ministry can’t just block laws it doesn’t like. The evidence backs it up: The DOJ approved 99.86% of submissions when preclearance was in effect.

MYTH: Preclearance is a major burden

According to former Virginia Secretary of State Ken Cuccinelli, preclearance creates an “extraordinary burden” on states and counties because “it covers up the smallest of trivia.” He claimed that even moving a polling station down the hall would trigger significant work for a state to allow DOJ review.

In reality, preclearance is not a heavyweight for states. Attorneys general from several states previously covered, including Mississippi and North Carolina, submitted briefs from friends of the court explaining that the process is “simplified to minimize burden,” requires materials that “are generally both easily accessible and easy to assemble”, and takes “only a few minutes to prepare”. Submissions often received approval on nothing more than these simple fact sheets. Again, 99.86% of proposed changes have been pre-approved in the past.

DOJ staff work in conjunction with local authorities, and most submissions only require a page or two of documentation. Small changes like moving a polling station require almost no documentation and are routinely approved. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act further streamlines the process in some cases, providing expedited review of changes that meet requirements such as natural disasters.

MYTH: States will be covered by law due to weak claims or unsubstantiated lawsuits

Opponents of the bill misrepresent how states are covered. Todd Rokita, Indiana’s secretary of state, told the Senate that temporary rulings or cases on appeal count for coverage and that the bill would “encourage frivolous lawsuits.” Cuccinelli alleged that simply deposit legal action could result in states being covered. Grassley tried to cloud the issue, saying the bill’s formula for deciding who is covered is based on “vague notions.”

Even a cursory scan of the Senate bill reveals these claims to be misrepresentations. The bill specifies that only a final outcome (such as a court order or certain types of decrees and consent regulations) that is not overturned on appeal. Only final resolutions that argue that state election law or practice violates the Constitution or federal laws against racial discrimination in voting contribute to coverage.

To suggest that the bill encourages frivolous litigation isn’t just speculative — it’s divorced from the reality of federal litigation. First, obtaining a final judgment in federal court is extremely difficult. Judges do not find that a state or locality violated the law unless plaintiffs present substantial evidence proving the allegations.

Second, given the difficulty of winning these cases, there is nothing to be gained by making a weak claim. Litigation is costly and time-consuming. Third, defendants with strong arguments have no incentive to settle frivolous claims. Their motivation is to pursue the case until victory, which is a powerful deterrent against future challenges.

Finally, court rules such as financial penalties imposed on those who bring frivolous lawsuits ensure that potential litigants carefully assess the validity of claims before filing them.

Perhaps most importantly, a state must accumulate at least 10 of these election law violations before being covered. This is far too high a bar for litigants to implicate a state in coverage.

MYTH: We eliminated the discrimination underlying the need for preclearance

Opponents of the bill argue that racial discrimination in voting is a thing of the past. Grassley claimed we “recently saw record high turnout for minority voters” and Rokita said “there is no evidence that voter suppression is on the rise.” Cuccinelli perfectly summed up his point for the committee: “America has – fortunately – left behind the days of racially repressive election laws.”

Unfortunately, these views simply do not reflect the reality of America today, where racism and voter suppression are alive and well. Despite the handpicked data from Republicans, the turnout of nonwhite voters still lags behind that of white voters. While the 2020 election saw record turnout overall, only 58.4% of non-white voters cast ballots, compared to 70.9% of white voters, a turnout gap of 12.5%. This turnout gap has been widening since 2012, the last presidential election before Shelby County – when it reached its narrowest level at 8.0%. And the gap is widening faster in states likely to be covered by preclearance than in the rest of the country.

Opponents of the bill are also unaware that laws and practices aimed at suppressing voters of color remain far too common. There was ample evidence of voter suppression and discriminatory conduct in the 2020 election cycle. Georgia purged the lists of hundreds of thousands of disproportionately nonwhite voters, North Carolina black voters vote nearly twice as often as white voters ballots, and Texas has only allowed one drop-off location for mail-in ballots per county, which primarily impacts its large , various counties. There were instances of racially-based voter intimidation, harassment of minority election observers, and threats against election officials.

Voter suppression continues to rise today. In 2021 alone, at least 19 states have enacted at least 34 laws that make it harder to vote, while at least 13 restrictive voting bills have been pre-filed for legislative sessions in 2022 and no less. of 152 restrictive voting bills will be carried over from last year. . Four of the restrictive laws passed in 2021 are “monster” voter suppression packages that include dozens of voting access rollbacks. Two of these monster laws are in states that would be covered by the version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act before the Senate (Texas and Georgia) and a third is in a state (Florida) that would have been covered by the version of the House of the bill. (The fourth is in Iowa).

In 1965, states and localities suppressed voting for people of color with poll taxes and literacy tests. Today we are witnessing insidious discrimination in new forms. We see it when a state bans round-the-clock voting in response to its widespread use in a heavily non-white county. We see it when a state sets limits on drop boxes that make them harder to access after nonwhite voters use them en masse. We see it when a legislator says that we must favor the “quality” of voters rather than the quantity.

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Critics of opponents of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are flimsy and transparent. The subtext comes through loud and clear. Critics haven’t identified any flaws in the bill — they oppose the Voting Rights Act, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement that transformed our democracy.

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