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In 2006, 192 Republicans Voted to Renew the Voting Rights Act. In 2019, Just One, as GOP Warns of Danger to ‘State’s Rights’

During a 2015 speech on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, President Barack Obama points towards the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where voting rights activists like John Lewis marched on "Bloody Sunday" in 1965. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

When the U.S. House of Representatives first passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965, it earned the support of 112 Republican members. When Congress last renew the VRA in 2006, 192 Republicans voted for the reauthorization. But when Congress voted last week to restore a key part of the Voting Rights Act, just one Republican—Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania—joined House Democrats in voting for that bill, H.R. 4.

GOP lawmakers, McClatchy’s Emma Dumain reported, complained that the bill “constituted broad federal overreach of states’ rights.” During the 1960s, segregationist Dixiecrats and Republicans similarly warned that both the Civil Rights Act and the VRA infringed on “state’s rights”—specifically, state’s rights to maintain racial segregation (as enshrined in the Southern Manifesto).

‘A Political Weapon’?

Republican House Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia claimed in a floor speech on Friday that H.R. 4 is “a partisan bill” that would “prevent states from running their own state and local elections.”

“Voting rights are protected in this country including in my own State of Georgia where Latino and African American turnout has soared,” Collins said, claiming the Voting Rights Act Restoration bill would turn voter protections into a “political weapon.”

In Georgia last year, though, Democrats alleged multiple violations of voters’ rights, as then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp purged tens of thousands of thousands of black voters from the rolls. Kemp narrowly defeated Stacey Abrams in the race for governor; she would’ve been the first black woman elected governor in U.S. history.

All but one Republican voted against the 2019 Voting Rights Act, H.R. 4, including Republicans in states with histories of black voter disenfranchisement, like Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama; Doug Collins of Georgia; and Steven Palazzo of Mississippi. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania was the lone GOP vote for H.R. 4.

Until 2013, the Voting Rights Act had “preclearance” conditions for states with a history of voter disenfranchisement—states like Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana—, which required them to get approval from the U.S. Justice Department before changing voting laws.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that provision in the 5-4 Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013, with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts dubiously suggesting racism was no more a problem in Alabama in the 2010s than in more liberal northern states like Massachusetts. Roberts’ opinion, though, did leave room for Congress to revisit preclearance issues in the future.

Democrats based the new Voting Rights Act Restoration bill on the results of a report on voter disenfranchisement efforts since the 2013 decision. The report documented not only efforts to disenfranchise voters of colors in states like Georgia and Mississippi, but also in some GOP-dominated red states that were not covered under the original preclearance provision.

The bill would create a new formula to determine which states must be subject to preclearance.

‘It Seems the Lights Are Going Out’

U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), a Civil Rights Era veteran who was beaten nearly to death in Selma, Ala., while marching for voting rights in 1965, presided as Congress passed HR4 on Friday.

Though H.R. 4 passed the House, it is unlikely that the Republican-controlled Senate will even take it up for a vote. The White House has already threatened that Donald Trump will veto the bill if it did somehow make it to his desk.

“The vote is precious. It is almost sacred,” Lewis said in a June 25 press statement while discussing plans to restore the VRA. “It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democracy. There are forces in this country that want to keep American citizens from having a rightful say in the future of our nation. That’s why the VRA was gutted.”

“I am deeply and very concerned about the future of our democracy. It seems the lights are about to go out. We must have the capacity and the ability to redeem the soul of this nation and set it on the right course. We must do all we can to make this a nation where justice and the voice of the people prevails.”

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