Statement On Introduction Of The Senate John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

. . . . Senate Floor

It is with hope, pride, and optimism that I rise today to honor the legacy of an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, a hero of democracy, and a dear friend of mine: John Lewis.  More than anything, John Lewis was a man of action.  Where he saw suffering, he tried to end it.  Where he saw injustice, he tried to correct it.  Where “good trouble” was needed, he showed up for it.  The most fitting way to honor the legacy of John Lewis is to take action ourselves.  So it is with pride that today I introduce the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, a vital piece of legislation to restore the landmark Voting Rights Act.

This legislation is the culmination of many months of tireless work across the halls of Congress – exactly what Congressman Lewis would have wanted to see.  That work began by building the record and telling the story of the current conditions for voters across the country.  And what did that record show?  A shocking picture.  Empowered by the Supreme Court’s damaging 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, states across the country have been advancing and enacting sweeping voter suppression efforts to make it more – not less – difficult for American citizens to participate in their own democracy.  Today, tens of thousands of Americans are being disenfranchised, under the guise of state law.  And it is no coincidence that certain communities consistently bear the brunt of these suppression schemes across the country. 

Throughout our history, we have worked to make our democracy ever more inclusive.  With each generation, we have sought to empower millions more to be equal participants in our system of self-government.  Make no mistake:  This tidal wave of voter suppression efforts seeks to bend the arc of equal justice and equal rights backwards.  This simply cannot stand.

Action in Congress is desperately needed.  The House answered the clarion call from Congressman Lewis and others to protect our “precious, almost sacred” right to vote, and passed a bold version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act earlier this year.  Today, in the Senate, we introduce a version of that bill that should garner the votes needed to restore the Voting Rights Act.  This legislation addresses the Court’s 2013 and 2021 decisions.  It should advance here.  It should be passed by the House.  And it would surely be signed into law.  There’s no reason for delay.

This legislation addresses the Supreme Court’s Shelby County decision by restoring the Justice Department’s preclearance powers to prevent states from enacting discriminatory voting changes.  The legislation limits the harms caused by the Supreme Court’s Brnovich [Brah-NO-vich] decision earlier this year, by enshrining a private right of action and clear factors with which voters can bring lawsuits against attempts to disenfranchise them.  Fundamentally, this legislation seeks to ensure that the Justice Department possesses the tools it needs to protect the right to vote for all Americans, regardless of party, race, creed, or background.

You wouldn’t know it by listening to the partisan rancor of today’s politics, but this goal – protecting our right to vote – has never been a partisan issue.  John Lewis once said:  “We all know this is not a Democratic or Republican issue. It is an American one.”  Truer words haven’t been spoken.  

We should remember that reauthorizing the Voting Rights Acts on a bipartisan basis is how we have always done it.  The core provisions of the Voting Rights Act have been reauthorized five times. Every time, this has been done with overwhelming bipartisan support in Congress.  Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush all signed Voting Rights Act reauthorizations into law, touting the profound importance of the landmark law for our democracy.  The most recent Voting Rights Act reauthorization in 2006 was a 98 to 0 vote in the Senate.  Many Senators still serving today, both Republican and Democrat, voted to support that legislation.

The toxic partisanship of American politics today has obscured what has for decades united us across party lines.  That is the belief that protecting our right to vote – the very right that gives democracy its name – is bigger than party or politics.  It is the belief that a system of self-government – a government of, by, and for the people – is one that is worth preserving for generations to come.  It is the belief that government exists to serve the will of the people – not the other way around.

Today, I hold the memory of John Lewis – of his advocacy, of his passion, of his zealous belief that we can appeal to our bettor angels – to urge all Senators, regardless of party, to join me in restoring and reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act.  The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act gives us that opportunity. Congressman Lewis would want us to come together and find a path forward to addressing the many threats facing Americans’ foundational right to vote.  What he wouldn’t accept, however, is inaction.  So let’s try to live up to the memory and the example of John Lewis, a heroic man of action.  I know he is watching over us.  Let’s make him proud. 

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