House Democrats in a party-line vote Tuesday approved restoring the Justice Department’s lapsed authority under the Voting Rights Act to block new state election laws deemed too restrictive.
Republicans bashed the bill, which passed in a strict party-line vote, 219-212, as a federal takeover of elections decisions that should be left to the states.
The bill faces near-certain death in the evenly-divided Senate. Rather than maneuvering to enact the legislation, House Democrats mainly passed it to placate civil rights groups upset with the lack of progress on racial justice issues. It also allows Democrats to continue to voice allegations that Republican-run states are imposing new racist rules to disenfranchise Black voters.
The passage of the bill stepped up calls on Senate Democrats from the left to undo the filibuster in order to pass the measure despite Republican opposition.
“I call on the Senate to do the right thing,” said Rep. Jesus Garcia, Illinois Democrat, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at a press conference after the vote.
The bill and Republican opposition to it is destined to be a rallying cry for Democrats on the 2022 campaign trail.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the bill’s passage, “almost a religious experience because of the sanctity of the vote.”
The passage of the bill, which is named after the late congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis, is part of Democrats’ attack on laws passed in several GOP-run states that strengthen requirements to vote, such as voter ID laws and tighter rules for mail-in ballots.
Republican lawmakers said those laws promote election integrity and restore public confidence in elections, concerns that have been fueled in part by former President Donald Trump’s unproven allegations that last year’s election was stolen by Democrats.
Democrats have argued that states like Georgia and Texas were able to pass the tougher regulations because the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder threw out a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required the Justice Department to approve new voting laws passed by states that have had a history of violating the civil rights. Tuesday’s measure would restore those powers as well as make it easier for activist groups to challenge state laws in court.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrod Nadler, New York Democrat said it “confronts the onslaught of discriminatory voting laws and practices that have emerged throughout the country.”
Republicans, including Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, called the Democrats’ comparison of the states’ laws to the racist Jim Crow-era laws a lie. Mr. Davis noted that only 27% of Black people voted in 1965, but 64% voted last year.
“It’s incredibly offensive to lie to the America people to advance a political agenda,” Mr. Davis said. “If you support this bill, you’re supporting a federal take over of elections. You’re putting an unelected unaccountable election czar in the Department of Justice in charge of elections.”
Some moderate Senate Democrats also have expressed concern about the bills, including provisions that would allow utility bills to satisfy voter ID requirements. Senate Democrats are trying to negotiate a compromise version that would garner support from all 50 of the chamber’s Democrats. If they succeed, they would still need the support of 10 Republicans to clear the 60-vote filibuster threshold.
The thwarted voting rights efforts in the Senate have been a top argument for liberals demanding Democrats blow up the filibuster rules and ram through legislation in party-line votes. The rule change would require the support of all 50 of the chamber’s Democrats, but moderates and some of the party’s longtime senators have resisted.
Moderate Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have said they will not go along with ending the filibuster, despite the fervent calls from the left.
Republicans balked that the measure would give the federal government too much power.