On August 24, the U.S. House of Representatives passed H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021, on a party-line vote. Named for the late Congressman and civil rights icon, the bill purports to “restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) which were gutted by the Supreme Court.” It doesn’t. In fact, the bill undermines civil rights by limiting state election reforms that expand minority voting rights and by weaponizing nondiscrimination laws for partisan gain.
Election integrity laws protect minority voters from suppression and intimidation. Yet H.4. will be used to torpedo them. Take, for example, Arizona’s election integrity law. The Arizona law bans ballot harvesting, taking aim at the ability of outside groups to intimidate or pressure people from voting a certain way. Last term, in Brnovich v. Arizona, the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s law. H.R. 4 seeks to reverse the Court’s decision and limit the ability of states to pass laws that seek to stop special interest groups from targeting minority and elderly voters. Supporters of H.R. 4 have claimed that Arizona’s law suppresses the Latino vote, but some Latinos objected to the practice of ballot harvesting, which they viewed as voter intimidation, and supported the Arizona bill. Under federal law, voter intimidation and coercive election interference is a crime. Why is Congress opposing states like Arizona from enacting their own laws to prevent voter intimidation and coercion of minorities?
Consider also Georgia’s election integrity law, which has led to boycotts and politicized legal battles. Although it has been called Jim Crow 2.0, the law actually incorporated the input of black churches, which advocated for the ability to use “souls to the polls” turnout efforts as they had during the Civil Rights era. The legislature responded by passing a law that permits localities to open for early voting on Sundays. That’s a sign of a state successfully working to include the input of minorities in the legislative process.
H.R. 4 also expands the ability of activist groups to sue to challenge congressional districts and changes to voting laws. Such suits typically are based on the assumption that racial minorities think and vote as a block for a single political party. That stereotype is simply not true. According to Pew Research surveys in 1996, 2004, 2012, and 2019, racial minorities identify as Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Data from the Roper Center about “How Groups Voted” also show that African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans are members of both political parties. As Northwestern University professor Geraldo Cadava explains, “Latinos aren’t naturally liberal or conservative… Their complex histories have given them good reasons to be Democrats, but also good reasons to be Republicans.” Likewise, Asian Americans and Native Americans are themselves diverse cultural communities, and tend to vote on the issues, rather than the political party. Yet H.R. 4 presumes that these groups will always vote a certain way.
Consider the partisan ways power under H.R. 4 can be abused by bureaucrats in D.C. and identity politics. In 2009, the Department of Justice challenged a change in North Carolina voting laws from partisan to nonpartisan elections which the voters themselves had passed by referendum. The federal government took the offensive position that minority voters would not know who to vote for unless the ballot listed the name of the political party next to a candidate. Meanwhile, the Justice Department failed to pursue voting rights discrimination cases in states like New Hampshire and Guam, where the outcome wouldn’t necessarily favor one political party. In multiple reports, the Inspector General found that the Voting Section, which is entrusted with additional federal power in H.R. 4, had “a culture of intolerance” where there was politicized hiring of career bureaucrats who engaged in “highly inappropriate and hostile conduct toward other career Section employees.”
As President Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided cannot stand.” The Civil Rights Movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 have brought the nation forward, and all Americans are thankful for the sacrifices of those who have come before us. Let’s not divide the United States again through partisan rhetoric in H.R. 4. Let’s keep moving forward with the support of Americans across the country, rather than backward.