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For fifth time, Sewell introduces John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

On the 11th anniversary of the United States Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell reintroduced a bill that would reimpose federal oversight on states as it pertains to their election laws, dubbed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

In 2013, Alabama’s Shelby County filed suit in district court seeking to overturn Sections 4 and 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, sections that prohibited states with a history of voter discrimination from enacting changes to their election laws without federal approval.

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Shelby County, declaring Sections 4 and 5 unconstitutional, and thereby removed those specific forms of federal oversight on state election law.

“The consequences of the Shelby decision have been clear and devastating,” Sewell, D-Birmingham, said, standing alongside a coalition of House Democratic leadership.

“Long lines at the polling stations, strict ID requirements, closed polling stations in communities of color, without notice, bans on early and absentee voting, and purging of voter rolls… the list goes on and on.”

Sewell noted election laws in her own state as being a result of the reduced federal oversight, highlighting Senate Bill 1, a bill signed into law earlier this year that makes it a Class B felony to provide a payment or gift for assistance with an absentee ballot application, with some exceptions for those with disabilities, punishable with up to 20 years in prison.

“Since the Shelby decision, we have seen 31 states institute at least 103 new laws to restrict voting access, and it is no surprise that those laws disproportionately target black and minority voters,” Sewell continued.

In 2018, BirminghamWatch reported that across the state, 25 counties had shed nearly 100 polling places between 2010 and 2018. Marengo County, in the Black Belt, had six fewer voting locations, a decrease of 24%

Some election officials said it was population shifts, inadequate buildings or requests from property owners that led to the decrease.

Others used the closures to call for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act to protect people’s access to polls, particularly for minority voters.

Since 2018, there have been no significant changes in the number of polling places across the state, according to a regular analysis by Alabama Daily News.

Under the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, states that have had 15 or more voting rights violations occur within the past 25 years, or ten if at least one was committed by the state itself, would be required to acquire federal approval before enacting changes to election laws.

On the bill’s name, Sewell noted the contributions made by John Lewis to the VRA in his participation in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, the landmark civil rights event that culminated in a violent attack on protesters by police known as Bloody Sunday.

“I grew up in Selma, Alabama, and what happened on that bridge almost 60 years ago is very personal to me,” she said. 

“We know that John Lewis was bludgeoned on a bridge for the equal right of all Americans to vote. We also know that it’ll be 60 years next year, (and) 60 years after those foot soldiers were bludgeoned on the bridge, their cause has become our cause too.”

Passage in the Republican-controlled House is unlikely. Still, Sewell said that as long as she remained a member of Congress, she will continue to reintroduce the bill.

“Yes, I’ve introduced it for the fifth time,” she said. “But God willing, and my constituents voting for me, we’ll continue to introduce it until it passes.”

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