'Urgent and essential:' How John Lewis's death has renewed calls to protect voting rights

With the election coming and a pandemic looming, voting rights take center stage.
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A protester wearing a mask that says, "Vote" in Washington Square Park on June 19, 2020.Ira L. Black / Corbis via Getty Images

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By Zeeshan Aleem

Three days after John Lewis died, his colleagues in the House approved a measure to rename a bill after him that would restore a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act.

The measure — initially passed by House Democrats in December and blocked from coming to a vote by Senate Republicans — stands as a symbol of how Lewis’s death has prompted liberal policymakers and voting rights advocates to double down on efforts to protect the franchise for communities of color.

“In light of his very unfortunate passing there’s been a renewed call to praise his life not only with words,” said Mike Zubrensky, chief counsel at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “We believe that his legacy should be honored with deeds as well.”

Lewis, the longtime congressman from Georgia who died Friday at 80, played a pivotal role in bringing about the Voting Rights Act in 1965, helping lead a voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, that was violently suppressed by state troopers and that set in motion passage of the law later that year. Selma at the time served as a prime example of how discriminationatory practices infringed on the rights of Black voters — in 1964 whites made up less than half the city’s population but 99 percent of its registered voters. In Selma the voter registration office was open just two days a month, and applicants had to pass rigorous literacy tests that effectively disenfranchised most Black voters.

John Lewis, in the foreground, is beaten by a state trooper during a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., on March 7, 1965.AP

Civil rights watchdogs say the Voting Rights Act, which outlawed racially discriminatory barriers to voting, was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that struck down a provision allowing the federal government to regulate the creation of new election laws in states with a history of discrimination.“What that decision did was let states with a long history of discrimination put in place discriminatory voting laws again, with little federal oversight,” said Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.”

In North Carolina, for example, the Republican-controlled state Legislature passed a law in 2013 — immediately after the Supreme Court ruling — that, among other things, scrapped some of the period for early voting, required a photo ID for all residents to vote, and ended same-day voter registration. Three years later, a federal appeals court ruled that the law targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.”

“That law would’ve been blocked to begin with, if the Voting Rights Act was in place,” Berman said.

But policymakers and advocates emphasize that restoring the full power of the Voting Rights Act is just one part of a vast set of challenges when it comes to making the ballot box equally accessible to people regardless of race, age, socioeconomic status or how able-bodied they are. Since 2010, at least 25 states have rolled out laws that introduce new restrictions on voting through measures like ID requirements and registration restrictions, including some states that would not have been scrutinized by the federal government under the Voting Rights Act, such as Wisconsin and Rhode Island. Experts say that these restrictions burden communities of color and voters with fewer resources disproportionately, and depress their turnout in elections.

Of paramount concern today is how the coronavirus pandemic is both creating new obstacles and intensifying old ones for citizens to get to the voting booth on Election Day this November. In particular, the massive increase in the percentage of voters intending to cast their ballots by mail is a serious logistical challenge that is being complicated further by misinformation campaigns about the security of voting by mail.

Young African Americans hold signs during a demonstration at the courthouse in Selma, Ala., Feb. 5, 1965 protesting voter registration. More than 400 of them were arrested and marched off to a compound.Bill Hudson / AP

Experts say that before the pandemic began, an estimated 25 percent of voters would’ve been expected to vote by mail, but now they estimate that 60 percent or more will try to cast their ballot by mail.

But many states make it difficult to do so. For example, in Texas, people under 65 can only vote by mail if they’re in jail, out of town during the election, or have a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from voting in-person — and fear of contracting COVID-19 doesn’t count as an exemption. In 16 states voters can obtain mail-ballots only if they meet certain exceptions such as having a disability.

Making things more complicated is the issue of public perception of the reliability of voting by mail. Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, an organization that fosters Black political engagement, said she’s troubled by “online propaganda and misinformation we see specifically targeted at Black voters and younger Black voters essentially saying you can’t trust the system.”

She said that her organization is making efforts to talk to Black voters about their concerns and confusion about voting by mail, and encouraging them to do so by walking them through the process.

Shropshire said that the problem of vote-by-mail misinformation has been amplified by politicians. President Donald Trump, for example, has described voting by mail as unreliable and highly vulnerable to fraud. He even suggested in a tweet Thursday that the problem was so intractable that the election in November should be delayed.

But Trump’s claims are at odds with the consensus among experts and every state’s history of voting by mail. Myrna Pérez, the director of the Brennan Center's Voting Rights and Elections Program, said that “every credible expert on this topic thinks that vote-by-mail is part of the solution” and that the method has proven secure “when resourced and planned properly.”

Part of Democrats’ bid to make sure that vote-by-mail is funded properly lies in another piece of pending legislation: the HEROES Act, which House Democrats passed in May and contains $3.6 billion for grants to states for contingency planning for November’s elections. The legislation also includes reforms such as no-excuse absentee ballots, 15 days of early voting, requiring accessible polling places for people with disabilities, and online voter registration.

Zubrensky said these reforms — which would override conflicting state rules — were “sensible before the pandemic, and urgent and essential now that we’re living with this pandemic.”