The death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis inspired Americans to look back to the monumental achievements of the civil-rights era. But as street protests nationwide this spring and summer continue to show, hard work remains to create true racial equity in America.
An inspired political move by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., appropriately memorialized Lewis’ crusade by connecting his name to overdue elections reform, now known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 removed federal oversight of election processes in certain Southern states. But racial discrimination remains a cruel fact of life for Black Americans and other minorities. The corrective measures created in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 need to be reinstituted.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found in 2019 that 1,688 polling places nationwide had closed between 2012 and 2018. Voters in areas previously under federal oversight — nine Southern states and some counties in a half-dozen others — had 1,173 fewer polling places open for 2018 midterm elections than in 2014.
The problem of voting equity isn’t just a distant Southern concern. A lawsuit filed last month alleges Yakima County’s system of electing commissioners discriminates against Latinos.
Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, would be aptly remembered with a new law that rebuilds federal protection for elections in those states with verified patterns of discrimination.
The deeply necessary reforms in the bill institute federal oversight for states where substantial electoral discrimination has been proven within the last 25 years. Georgia’s June election debacle left voters in many Black precincts waiting for hours to vote because many former poll sites had been eliminated. The proposed law would institute new requirements for covered states to shut down polling places.
Lewis himself held the gavel in December when the House passed legislation that was identical but for his name. The new version has been introduced in the Senate. Its Republican majority leaders have appeared disinclined so far to advance it.
This proposal should rise above the long-entrenched partisan standoff. Washington Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell are already supporting this bill, but it will take bipartisan backing to get the bill to the Senate floor, where it deserves a fair hearing.
In an acclaimed eulogy Thursday for Lewis, former President Barack Obama powerfully endorsed the bill and the importance of ensuring access to the ballot box for all.
Lewis, as Obama said, made his life’s work improving American democracy. Senators across the nation should help enshrine in law the legacy Lewis deserves — as Obama described it, “a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America” he fought so hard to leave behind.