'We cannot stand idly by': Senators demand Mitch McConnell call vote on John Lewis voting rights bill

Lawmakers urge restoration of Voting Rights Act following congressman's death

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 27 July 2020 19:08 EDT
Civil rights icon John Lewis dies aged 80

The US House of Representatives has agreed to rename a bill that reinstates key elements of the Voting Rights Act after John Lewis, the late Civil Rights leader and congressman who died on 17 July.

A group senators have also demanded Senate Republicans bring the measure to a vote after Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tabled legislation in 2019.

Mr Lewis was instrumental in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, landmark federal legislation barring racial discrimination at the polls.

A 2013 US Supreme Court decision invalidated key provisions in the law, which prohibited states with histories of racial discrimination from changing their election laws without first receiving federal approval.

In a letter to Senate judiciary chairman Lindsey Graham, senators wrote that the committee “must not stand idly by while the precious constitutional rights of so many Americans hang in the balance”.

The Senate’s John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act has 48 cosponsors, including every Democrat, two independents who caucus with Democrats, and Republican senator Lisa Murkowski.

That measure “would go far in restoring the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and curtailing some of the worst forms of voter suppression”, according to the letter. “We urge you to promptly hold a hearing and a markup to discuss, debate, and hopefully move this vital legislation out of committee.”

Mr McConnell refused to hold hearings on the House measure after its passage in December.

That chamber “already done its part by passing this legislation this past December”, the letter says. “Now the Senate must do its job, and that begins here in the storied Senate judiciary committee. We cannot claim to honour the life of John Lewis if we refuse to carry on his life’s work.”

Mr McConnell has dismissed that voter suppression remains an issue, claiming in the Wall Street Journal that it’s “nonsense” and that there is “very little tangible evidence” that it even exists.

While outright suppression tactics like poll taxes and literacy tests no longer remain in the US, states have imposed voter ID laws, gerrymandered districts, purged voter rolls and moved or closed polling locations, among other methods that aim to manipulate election outcomes while disproportionately impacting voters of colour, according to civil rights groups.

Several states have closed nearly 1,200 polling places following the 2013 Supreme Court ruling.

Voting rights advocates fear that threats to absentee or mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic could significantly undermine November’s crucial presidential election.

Mr McConnell was among elected officials who eulogised the late congressman in written tributes, praising Mr Lewis as “a pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles”.

Police fractured Mr Lewis’ skull on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, when civil rights marchers were met by brutal Alabama State Police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Mr Lewis was arrested at least 45 times throughout his life in defence of the rights he sought to protect.

He did not live to see the restoration of the act for which he ”gave a little blood”, he often would say. Once the youngest among giants of the civil rights movement in the 1960s alongside Martin Luther King Jr, and the youngest person to address a massive crowd during the March on Washington, he died at age 80 following a cancer diagnosis.

Mr Lewis would return to the bridge throughout his life to recognise the anniversary of the event. His body made one final journey across the bridge on 26 July during a funerary procession.

His body is currently lying in state at the US Capitol.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn said that that “if they so celebrate the heroism of this man, then let’s go to work and pass that bill”.

He told CNN on 19 July that Donald Trump and other Republicans who dismissed the initial bill before paying their respects to the civil rights leader should seek the passage of the bill in his honour.

“Words maybe powerful, but deeds are lasting,” he said.

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