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Voters wait in line at a polling site at Austin Oaks Church in October. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

New Texas voting laws, political maps could once again require federal approval under U.S. House bill named after John Lewis

The federal bill seeks to reinstate sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were written to protect people of color. Texas House Democrats see it as a way to prevent implementing provisions of a Texas voting restrictions bill moving through the state
Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The U.S. House on Tuesday passed a bill that could complicate both the coming round of redistricting in Texas and a voting restrictions bill currently under consideration in the state Legislature.

Known as the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the bill would reinstate sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that were written to protect people of color. Over the last decade, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled back some of that landmark law’s provisions.

The bill passed along party lines, meaning all Democratic Texans in the U.S. House supported it and all Republican delegation members opposed it.

Should the bill also pass the U.S. Senate, it could put states like Texas that have a history of voter discrimination back under a process called federal preclearance. That would require the state to once again obtain federal approval of its political maps and elections changes, like the controversial voting restrictions bill that is currently under consideration in the state Legislature. Preclearance is meant to ensure that any new election laws or rounds of redistricting do not harm people of color.

The federal legislation is one of two bills Texas House Democrats have been advocating for since they fled to Washington, D.C., in July to block the state voting bill poised for passage in the Republican-controlled Legislature. Democratic state lawmakers lobbied Congress to pass federal legislation that would supersede attempts in Texas to restrict voting access.

The federal bill’s author, Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, is a native of Selma, where law enforcement in 1965 brutally attacked the late civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis and other civil rights activists in what is often called “Bloody Sunday.”

Sewell told The Texas Tribune the voting bill moving through the Texas Legislature illustrated the need for her legislation.

“The Texas Legislature’s outrageous and anti-democratic attempt to erect deliberate barriers to the ballot box demonstrates exactly why federal oversight is so urgently needed,” she said in a statement to the Tribune. “As states like Texas continue their assault on the right to vote, we must ensure that the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is signed into law. There is no time to waste.”

The bill aims to address two U.S. Supreme Court decisions over the last decade that overturned key parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. For four decades, a section of that law dictated that states with a history of discrimination had to clear certain changes to elections and political maps through the Justice Department or federal courts in a process known as preclearance.

The federal bill could allow federal officials to closely examine changes to voting laws. That could include reductions in polling locations or hours proposed in the Texas bill, which seeks to ban the drive-thru and overnight voting accommodations created in Harris County last year — which were embraced disproportionately by voters of color. The Texas legislation would also increase vote-by-mail restrictions and give more freedom to partisan poll watchers.

Republicans have touted the Texas elections bill as an election integrity measure to protect the voting process from fraud, even though there is no evidence it occurs on a widespread basis.

The U.S. House’s passage of the federal bill Tuesday came amid a rare voting session in August, when the chamber is usually in recess, underscoring how important this bill is for the Democratic-controlled Congress.

The bill could also require federal approval of the coming redraw of the U.S. House districts in Texas, which occurs every decade after the completion of the U.S. census. The Republican-controlled Texas Legislature is expected to release proposed new political maps this fall. In the past, Texas’ redistricting process has come under legal scrutiny for discriminating against people of color and was subject to extensive litigation.

But House Republicans characterized the federal bill as meddling in a jurisdiction that they argue should solely be in the hands of state governments.

“We’re going to disenfranchise American voters by taking over the voting across America,” said U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Tyler Republican, on the House floor just prior to the Tuesday evening vote. “The Constitution reserves those provisions to the states’ legislatures. We shouldn’t be doing this.”

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas, a voting rights attorney prior to his congressional career, was a key strategist in pushing the bill through Congress.

Allred noted to reporters ahead of the vote that one of his constituents, former President George W. Bush, easily passed a renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2006 with overwhelming majorities in both chambers of Congress.

“Very recently, this was not a partisan issue,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Chip Roy of Austin pushed a Republican counterargument to that point.

“While measures like pre-clearance may have been necessary almost 60 years ago when the [Voting Rights Act] was enacted, current registration and participation levels make it clear that they no longer are,” he said in a statement.

This is a far more narrow bill compared to the For the People Act, another federal bill supported by the Texas House Democrats. The For the People Act would dramatically overhaul campaign finance regulations and require independent redistricting commissions, among several other measures.

Few Capitol Hill observers see any scenario in which the For The People Act will pass the Senate.

The Lewis bill also has a tough slog ahead in the Senate, but it is widely seen as the voter access proposal that has the best chance in that chamber. Texas Democrats back in Austin were pleased with a step forward in the Lewis Act.

“Texas House Democrats are grateful to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, bill sponsor Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Alabama) and all members of Congress who voted today to protect the bedrock right of our democracy - and for accelerating this bill’s passage following our Caucus’ work in Washington, D.C.,” Texas House Democratic Chair Chris Turner said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston Democrat, expressed optimism on Tuesday that the voting bill could pass the Senate.

“There are ongoing conversations between the House and the Senate ... There’ve been a lot of conversations, a lot of very productive conversations, and so I am optimistic ... that we will be able to see the Senate move forward,” she said.

Along with this voting bill, the House also passed on Tuesday a massive spending bill — one that some Democrats branded a “human infrastructure” bill. That legislation harkens back to the anti-poverty policies of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and also seeks to address climate change.

Despite Democratic optimism, it remains unclear whether either bill will pass in the narrowly divided U.S. Senate.

Alexa Ura and Bethany Irvine contributed to this report.

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