U.S. House passes legislation to crack down on voter suppression

Voters fill out their ballots in Miami during the mid-term elections on Nov. 6, 2018. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. House passed legislation Friday that would give the federal government broader authority to police voting rights violations across the country.

The bill, a top priority for House Democrats, passed by a vote of 228-187, with just one Republican — Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania — breaking party ranks to vote for the measure.

Florida’s House delegation voted along party lines, with 13 Democrats in favor of the bill and 14 Republicans opposed.

The vote “is the most important non-violent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society and people should be able to use it, all of our citizens,” Rep. John Lewis , a Democrat from Georgia, said ahead of the vote. “There are forces in America today trying to take us back to another time and another place. But with the passage of this bill, we’re not going back, we’re going forward.”

Friday’s vote came as House Democrats hoped to show they can continue to legislate even as they barrel ahead with an impeachment inquiry against President Trump. But like most of their top priorities this Congress, the voting rights bill faces steep Republican opposition and is likely to go nowhere in the GOP-led Senate.

Still, supporters of the bill hoped to put political pressure on senators, and the legislation could be teed up again after a power shift in Congress or the White House.

“We should not let it languish in the Senate’s legislative graveyard,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said Friday during a news conference. “Bring it to a vote, see if anybody would actually stand up and vote no.” Leahy’s bill has 43 Democratic and two independent co-sponsors.

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel during a news conference on Dec. 12, 2017, in Washington. Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The legislation, titled the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, came in response to a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Shelby County v. Holder. The court “effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote, freeing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval,” The New York Times wrote at the time.

Critics of the ruling say it has led to a rise in voter suppression across the country and made it more difficult to enforce fair access to the ballot box.

“As soon as that decision was released, we began to see in state after state a torrent of voter suppression,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, said Friday.

The legislation that passed by the House, spearheaded by Alabama Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, would set new criteria for determining which areas have had a recent history of voter discrimination and therefore must secure federal approval before making changes to their voting practices.

If enacted, the legislation would require 11 states to seek federal approval for changes to state voting laws, according to its sponsors: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.

House Republican opponents of the bill warned that the legislation would unnecessarily limit state and local control over voting.

“Full protections are afforded under the current federal law for all those with valid claims of discrimination in voting,” said Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Georgia. He called the legislation a “partisan bill … to prevent states from running their own state and local elections.”

Rep. Lois Frankel, a Democrat from Palm Beach County, said the decision in the Shelby case “trampled” on voting rights and unleashed “a flood of state and local voter-suppression laws.” In Florida, she said, “laws and policies have cut back early voting, established English-only ballots,” and thwarted “efforts to restore voting rights to ex-felons.”

The House legislation, Frankel said, “will push back against suppressive voting laws, restoring the great equalizer for democracy and for our people.”