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

protect my vote
Voting rights activists rallied to oppose voter roll purges in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2018. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
protect my vote
Voting rights activists rallied to oppose voter roll purges in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2018. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. House passed legislation on 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. 

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 (D-Ga.) 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.” 

In a statement, Nevada Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, said the bill “bolsters protections against discriminatory voting practices in the face of narrowed voting windows, closing polling places, and the creation of new barriers to voting across the country.”

“American elections have never been truly equal across race, ZIP code, and socioeconomic status,” said Nevada Democratic Rep. Susie Lee. “To this day, communities across America are fighting discriminatory obstacles to voting,” Lee said.

Friday’s vote comes as House Democrats hope to show they can continue to legislate even as they barrel ahead with an impeachment inquiry against President Donald 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 hope to put political pressure on Senate lawmakers, 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 (D-Vt.), the lead sponsor of the Senate version of the bill said Friday at a press conference. “Bring it to a vote, see if anybody would actually stand up and vote no.” Leahy’s bill has 45 co-sponsors, including Nevada Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen.

The legislation, titled the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019, comes 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 an uptick 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 (D-Md.) said Friday. 

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

If enacted, the legislation would require 11 states to require federal approval for changes to state voting laws, according to its sponsors. The 11 states are: 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 (R-Ga.). He called the legislation a “partisan bill … to prevent states from running their own state and local elections.” 

Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.