Voices & Choices

Celebrating the 57th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and Recommitting to Renewal

Celebrating the 57th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and Recommitting to Renewal

Fifty-seven years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 into law. The landmark legislation was a major milestone for the civil rights movement after years of direct action and grassroots protests. During its original passage and subsequent reauthorizations, the law earned strong bipartisan support. Only in the last several years have VRA reauthorization efforts become distressingly partisan. Congress would benefit from returning to its tradition of bipartisan support for the VRA and passing the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.  

In 1965, the Senate passed the VRA by a vote of 77-19, with Democrats voting for the measure by a margin of 47-17 and Republicans supporting it at a rate of 17-2. The only Senate votes against the measure came from southern states. In the House, the bill passed 333-85, with Democrats voting 221-62 and Republicans voting 112-23 in favor. 

Congress amended and reauthorized the Act in 1970, 1975, 1982, 1992, and 2006. Reviewing the vote count in each instance highlights how bipartisan the reauthorization process used to be. The 1970 reauthorization passed the Senate 64-12 and the House by a 237–132 vote. The 1975 bill passed the Senate 77–12 and the House 346–56. In 1982, it passed the Senate 85-8 and the House 389–24. In 1992, it passed the Senate 75-20 and the House 237-125. Finally, in 2006, the reauthorization passed the Senate unanimously 98-0 and passed the House 390–33. 

What changed to make voting rights a partisan issue? The 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution are clear that Congress has wide discretion to enforce voting rights with appropriate legislation, but starting with the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, the Court gave itself power to veto voting rights enforcement. In a 5-4 ruling, the Court invented a principle of equal sovereignty of the states and ruled that the Voting Rights Act’s coverage formula was impermissibly out-of-date. This ruling had the effect of rendering Section 5 of the VRA inoperable, enabling previously covered states to enact potential voter suppression without review and preclearance by the federal government. 

Congress could have responded to this 2013 ruling by building on its bipartisan history of reauthorizations to pass a new coverage formula. Instead, voting rights became a starkly partisan issue, with Republicans using concerns about voter fraud to advance restrictions and Democrats trying in vain to advance new voting rights legislation. In this Congress, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) of 2021 passed the House 219-212 with 219 Democrats voting in favor and 212 Republicans opposed. When the Senate voted on whether to advance the bill, Senator Lisa Murkowski was the only Republican who voted in favor. 

Although this descent into partisan obstruction is agonizing, we can and must recommit ourselves to renewing the Voting Rights Act for the 21st century. As the history of the Act shows, voting rights are not a Democratic issue or a Republican issue but an American one. If, as seems likely, the John Lewis VRAA does not pass this Congress, we must all do our part to ensure its passage in a future Congress. That is the best way to honor the legacy of all those who struggled and died for the sacred right to vote.

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