Congress passed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965 to protect against racial discrimination in voting. The VRA was subsequently amended to also protect against discrimination against linguistic minorities. This momentous piece of legislation delivers on the promise of the 14th and 15th Amendments that every citizen has the right to an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.
But this right is threatened, in particular because of two decisions of the Supreme Court. Section 5 of the VRA requires states and localities with a history of discrimination to obtain approval from the Department of Justice or a court before changing voting rules (a process known as “preclearance”). “).
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the formula for determining which jurisdictions were precleared was unconstitutional because it was outdated, gutting a key VRA provision. The move ushered in a wave of efforts in states previously covered by Section 5 to restrict voting rights, leaving Congress with the responsibility of drafting an updated coverage formula to restore Section 5’s strength.
In July 2021, the Supreme Court made it more difficult to challenge laws that restrict voting rights under section 2 of the VRA. In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the court ruled that two Arizona election laws did not charge voters of color enough to constitute a violation of the VRA. In doing so, the Court largely ignored the long-standing considerations that courts have relied on in determining whether there is discrimination under Article 2, which allows voters to take legal action to block elections. discriminatory electoral laws. Instead, the Court created new “beacons” for adjudicating Article 2 claims, for example if a state offers more opportunities to vote now than the state did when Article 2 did. was last modified in 1982.
These Supreme Court rulings, along with the wave of restrictive voting laws passed this year, underscore the urgent need for Congress to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The bill, named in honor of the late civil rights champion and congressman, passed the House in August and is now before the Senate.
The John Lewis Act would modernize and revitalize the VRA by strengthening legal protections against discriminatory electoral policies. First, it reinstates what the Supreme Court struck down in Shelby County creating a new formula for determining which jurisdictions with a history of electoral discrimination are subject to preclearance, and it adds practice-based coverage, making certain types of discriminatory vote changes subject to preclearance. The bill also reinstates section 2 following Brnovich to ensure that voters have the full capacity to challenge electoral discrimination in court.
To learn more about the Voting Rights Advancement Act, see the following resources:
Brennan Center analyzes, reports and explanations highlighting the need to restore voting rights law
Hearings and Evidence in Congress in Support of the Advancement of Voting Rights Act