Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) urged Congress to enact legislation that would protect the freedom to vote on Tuesday, just hours after the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that stopped discriminatory voting laws from going into effect in areas of the country with histories of disenfranchisement.
In a 5 to 4 opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court ruled that Section 4, which establishes the formula that determines which jurisdictions are subject to federal “preclearance” of changes in election laws, is unconstitutional. Congress will now have to decide which areas of the country still deserve additional federal scrutiny.
“These men that voted to strip the Voting Rights Act of its power, they never stood in unmovable lines,” Lewis told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “They never had to pass a so-called literacy test. It took us almost 100 years to get where we are today. So will it take another 100 years to fix it, to change it?” he asked. Watch it:
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Congress voted to renew the Voting Rights Act in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006, each time with increasingly larger margins. Twenty Republican senators who are still serving in Congress supported re-authorization in 2006 and only 33 members in the House voted against it.
“It is going to be very difficult,” to pass legislation in this Congress, Lewis admitted, “but people said the same thing in 1965.” “I think what happened today with the Supreme Court will motivate hundreds and thousands of people, African American, latino, white, Asian American, Native Americans, men, women, students, to come out. The vote is precious.”
Indeed, in a press conference following the decision, Attorney General Eric Holder noted that federal courts relied on Section 4 of the Act to invalidate discriminatory voter laws in Texas and South Carolina as recently as last year and called on Congress to ensure that everyone’s vote is protected. Since 2010, at least eight of eleven states in the former Confederacy passed voting restrictions and just today, Texas Attorney General announced that the state will move “forward with a controversial voter ID law” in the wake of the ruling.
Progressive groups have kicked off a petition to amend the constitution to “protect our freedom to vote,” building on legislation proposed by Democrats in the House. The measure will have to be approved by Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), however, argued that any Congressional action is unlikely, “As long as Republicans have a majority in the House and Democrats don’t have 60 votes in the Senate, there will be no preclearance.” “It is confounding that after decades of progress on voting rights, which have become part of the American fabric, the Supreme Court would tear it asunder,” he said.
“I didn’t think that on that day when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, that I would live to see five members of the United States Supreme Court undoing what President Johnson did with those pens,” Lewis added. “We must not forget our past. We must not forget our history. If we forget it, we will repeat it.”
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told TPM that Congress should act to preserving voting rights: “My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all,” Cantor said in a statement provided to TPM. “I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a responsible path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.”