The Democrat-led House voted Tuesday to advance H.R. 4 — otherwise known as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — to a contentious battle in the Senate. If passed, the legislation would, among other things, allow the Justice Department to “review of changes in election law in states with a history of discrimination.”
Democrats like House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) have insisted the law is necessary to counteract recent Supreme Court decisions that weaken the 1965 Voting Rights Act and impede minority communities’ ability to vote while making it easier for states to overturn election results.
“These undemocratic measures disproportionately impact communities of color,” Clyburn said Tuesday.
However Ken Blackwell, Chairman of CNP Action and former Ohio Secretary of State, took issue with that sentiment Tuesday before the vote. He said H.R. 4 is little more than a power grab and an extreme partisan attempt to federalize elections that would ultimately “lead to federal control [and] the corruption of elections by partisan idealogues in the DOJ.”
Blackwell, in a press conference with other prominent African-American leaders such as Dean Nelson, Chairman of the Douglass Leadership Institute, and Clarence E. Henderson, National Spokesman for the Frederick Douglass Foundation, said the legislation is not in keeping with the spirit of its namesake’s activism and “is an insult to the history of the civil rights movement in this country.”
“It is a direct affront to the transparency of election systems at the local and state levels,” Blackwell said, because it would allow the DOJ to sue states over laws passed but not yet implemented; and would, according to USA Today, “create new tests for challenging election laws that dilute the power of voters, such as in redistricting, or for blocking a voter from casting a ballot, such as in a voter ID case.”
In the latest legislation, the House agreed to revive Justice Department review of changes in election law if a state accumulates 15 violations in 25 years. The bill would also create a category of “practice-based” preclearance, to give the department oversight when a jurisdiction makes changes such as switching from district voting to at-large elections.
Blackwell, Dean, and Henderson claimed the legislation is a “solution in search of a problem” as it relates to it providing a supposed fix to the problem of minority disenfranchisement at the ballot box.
“Elections are setting records for turnout among minority and racial and ethnic groups,” Blackwell said, noting that African American and Hispanic voting numbers increased in 2020 compared to 2016.
“There’s no real evidence from out vantage point that blacks are being discriminated against at the ballot box,” Dean said. “There is a consistent effort from the left to scare, particularly African American voters, largely in southern states.”
“[The left’s language is intended] to create greater concern from the minority community that voting rights might be taken away [and H.R. 4] ultimately gives…more control than is really needed to the Justice Department,” Dean said.
The battle in the Senate could lead to a renewed debate over abolishing the filibuster. A filibuster to block legislation would require 60 votes to beat and the nearly even partisan split in the Senate makes that a difficulty.
“If 10 Senate Republicans won’t support this bill, then Senate Democrats must reform the filibuster,” Sylvia Albert, Common Cause director of voting and elections, told USA Today. “The freedom to vote must be protected for every American.”
But for Henderson, the issue is far more personal than procedural battles in Congressional chambers.
“First you wouldn’t let us vote, then you tell us how to vote, now you want to restrict our voting rights,” Henderson said Tuesday.