By Renee Walker, Feb. 15, 2022

Senate Democrats suffered a devastating loss last month when two moderate Democratic senators — Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — voted against proposed measures to ease the passage of voting rights legislation in the Senate. The rejection of the measure effectively killed the chance of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act passing in Congress.

As Black History Month commences, the Senate’s lack of action leaves African Americans wondering about their rights in the political process. Black faculty and staff at Cal Poly Pomona displayed concern over the failed attempt to pass the legislation.

“Republicans realized the power of marginalized communities being activated, animated and marching in the streets,” said Renford Reese, a professor in the Department of Political Science. “What they’re trying to do is counter that passion, that post-George Floyd passion.”

Sharon Wu | The Poly Post

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act aimed to reinstate federal oversight over some state voting laws, a provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that was overturned by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, determined the coverage formula found in Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to be unconstitutional.

Section 4 and 5 of the 1965 act focused on preclearance: Section 4b introduced the coverage formula, which identified states suffering from severe voting restrictions, while Section 5 prohibited those identified states from changing voting procedures without federal approval.

As a result of the Court’s ruling, states previously included under the coverage formula — Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Alaska, Virginia and South Carolina — were able to pass voter laws without federal oversight.

Many fear that voter suppression will rise as lawmakers impose stricter voter laws.

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” argued the late Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in her dissent.

According to Reuters, on Feb. 7, The Supreme Court approved Republican-endorsed district lines in Alabama that have been found to discriminate against Black voters. In Georgia, Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill to eliminate all absentee ballot drop-boxes, and Texas legislators imposed new voter ID laws.

“Research is showing that we have reduced voting locations and reduced voter turnout; we’ve had cuts to early voting; we’ve had purges to voter rolls, and then we’ve had the imposition of strict voter ID laws,” Reese stated. “Why would you want this in a democracy?”

The proposed John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act combats the changes America is currently seeing from states with high voter suppression. Along with Democrats’ focus on preclearance, an accompanying bill was introduced to the senate floor: The Freedom to Vote Act.

According to Congress’s website, “This bill addresses voter registration and voting access, election integrity and security, redistricting, and campaign finance.”

To achieve this mission, the bill would make Election Day a federal holiday, allow for online, automatic same-day voter registration, require a minimum of two weeks of early voting and mandate states to broaden accepted forms of ID for voting.

“I think these are good ways to increase voter engagement and to increase access to the vote,” said La’Keisha Beard, interim associate director for the Office of Student Life and Cultural Centers. “I also would like to see voting rights restored to folks who were previously incarcerated.”

The Voting Rights Advancement Act continues the legacy of the late U.S. Representative John Lewis, a civil rights activist and former leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Lewis is widely known for his continuous charge for social justice, becoming the youngest speaker at the March on Washington at the age of 23.

Although Lewis passed away in 2020, the stride for voting rights continues nearly 60 years after the passing of the original voting rights bill.

“This is an opportunity for those most impacted by the bill to show that they are a part of the voting process as well,” said Teaja Smith, interim coordinator of the African American Student Center. “These bills will not only affect older voters but our students as well.”

In light of the Senate’s decision to reject the proposition of filibuster reform, protests have erupted in major cities like Atlanta and Birmingham, Alabama — even the U.S. Capitol building. They all echo the same theme: to be accounted for.

“Put blinders on as if you don’t know what your ethnic background is,” said Reese. “Put the shoe on the other foot and don’t hide behind these concepts that are frivolous, that are not worth hiding behind, and do what’s right.”

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