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

A voting location
File photo of a voting location from Wikimedia Commons by Tom Arthur.

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.

Ohio’s House delegation voted along party lines, 4-12, against the bill.

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.” 

Friday’s vote comes as House Democrats hope to show they can continue to legislate even as they move forward with an impeachment inquiry against President 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 senators, 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 news conference. “Bring it to a vote, see if anybody would actually stand up and vote no.” Leahy’s bill has 43 Democratic and two independent co-sponsors.

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 H. 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 dicrimination 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.” 

Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Cleveland), chairwoman of the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, has held hearings across the country about allegations of voting rights abuses.

“If you believe that black and brown people, Asian citizens, native Americans, language minorities, students, the poor, rural and urban citizens are part of we the people, you must vote to support H.R. 4,” Fudge said on the House floor Friday.

In a release Friday afternoon, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Niles) called the right to vote a “cornerstone of our democracy” and said it must be protected.

“Every American who is eligible deserves an equal opportunity to elect their representatives and weigh in on the issues that matter most to them,” Ryan said.