In the fight to restore what’s been called the most effective civil rights legislation in U.S. history, Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama is unrelenting.
Despite a divided Congress heading into a presidential election year, Sewell is leading a group of House Democrats to reintroduce a bill Tuesday that would shore up and expand the Voting Rights Act of 1965 after the U.S. Supreme Court dismantled key parts of the landmark law.
“The whole movement for voting rights, we know that we can’t give up, that old battles have become new again, even though we thought that this battle for voting rights was won on a bridge in my hometown,” Sewell tells NPR, referring to the confrontation in Selma, Ala., between police and peaceful demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge that spurred on the passage of the Voting Rights Act months later.
Named in honor of the late civil rights icon who was bludgeoned by a state trooper with a billy club on that “Bloody Sunday” and later served as a longtime U.S. representative from Georgia, Sewell’s bill — the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — was part of a pair of voting rights bills in the last Congress that President Biden tried to rally lawmakers around in “a moral and Constitutional obligation to act.”
In 2021, the Democratic-controlled House passed Sewell’s bill in a vote along party lines. But in the Senate, where Democrats have held a slim majority, the legislation ultimately could not overcome Republican opposition, as well as a failed attempt to end the Senate’s legislative filibuster in order to pass the bill with a simple majority.
“As long as I have breath in me and as long as the folks of Alabama keep sending me back to Congress, I will continue to keep introducing this bill in every successive Congress,” says Sewell, who is the first Black woman to serve in Alabama’s congressional delegation and is now in her seventh term. “We have to continue to let the folks know that we’re fighting for access to the ballot box for everybody.”
How the bill would restore the Voting Rights Act
As in its previous version, key provisions in Sewell’s latest bill respond to two Supreme Court decisions that have made it more difficult to protect voters of color from discrimination.
Its 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder effectively eliminated requirements for certain states and counties with a history of racial discrimination to get “preclearance” approval from the Justice Department or a federal court of three judges before changing any election rules.
The Supreme Court’s majority, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, found that the formula used to determine which areas would be covered by these requirements was out of date and in violation of the Constitution.
Sewell’s bill updates the formula to require preclearance for 10 years for any state that, in the past 25 years, had at least 15 voting rights violations, as determined by the U.S. attorney general, committed by localities within the state or at least 10 violations, including one by the state itself. A county would be covered if it had three or more violations.
“It’s not enough to be able to sue after the fact,” says Sewell, who is the top Democrat on the House Administration subcommittee on elections. “We need a prophylactic measure by which we stop laws from coming into effect in jurisdictions where they’ve had a history of voter discrimination.”
The other Supreme Court ruling the bill tries to address is the court’s 2021 decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. That ruling has made it harder to bring lawsuits challenging racial discrimination with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The bill would amend the section by codifying factors that courts would have to consider when reviewing claims of vote denial. It specifies, for example, that an election rule that is intended to help a political party would violate Section 2 if it is also intended to dilute the power of voters of color or make it harder for them to “cast a ballot that will be counted.”
Why the 2024 elections could determine whether this bill becomes law
The chances of Sewell’s bill passing this Congress are slim to none, according to Sarah Binder, a political science professor and longtime Congress watcher at George Washington University.
“Not much has changed on the Senate side. Democrats still don’t have the votes they need on substance, and they don’t have the votes from within their own party to tweak the rules in a way that would overcome a Republican filibuster,” Binder says. “And of course, the other part is the Republicans control the House, and there’s no interest in reforming voting rights.”
Indeed, the chair of the House Administration Committee, Republican Rep. Bryan Steil of Wisconsin, has introduced legislation that would add voting restrictions.
Sewell concedes that Democrats would need to win back control of the House, expand their current majority in the Senate and keep Biden in the White House in order for her bill to have a real chance at becoming law after next year’s elections.
“Change rarely comes from the halls of Congress. It bubbles up from grassroots activism, from mobilizing and organizing in communities,” Sewell says about her strategy beyond supporting Biden’s reelection and other Democratic campaigns in the coming months. “So that’s what we plan on doing — organizing and mobilizing on the grassroots level, putting pressure on members of Congress to do the right thing.”
Why the bill, if signed into law, could be blocked by the Supreme Court
Any new voting rights legislation passed by Congress and signed by the president, however, would likely have to face another political reality — the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority, says Aderson Francois, a law professor and the director of the Civil Rights Clinic and Voting Rights Center at Georgetown Law.
“There’s a lot of good policy in [Sewell’s bill]. I do believe, though, that — even if the Democrats could take back the House and expand their majority in the Senate and President Biden was reelected and signed a law — the court would serve to be an impediment to some, if not all, of the portions of the act,” Francois says. “I am not convinced that even this new preclearance provision would be upheld by the Supreme Court.”
Still, Sewell remains optimistic, holding onto an unexpected ruling by the court in an Alabama congressional redistricting case that upheld the court’s past decisions about Section 2, a key surviving pillar of the Voting Rights Act.
“Of course one worries about whether or not the court would actually decide in one’s favor. But I have to tell you, I think all people were shocked and surprised that this Supreme Court did the right thing in the Milligan case,” Sewell says. “So, you know, hope does spring eternal. And we’ll continue to fight until we get the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.”
And for the Alabama case, the legal fight is far from over.
The state of Alabama is now testing whether the court is willing to revisit the case and undo its precedents on Section 2.
Edited by Benjamin Swasey