Nearly 50 years after the Voting Rights Act became law, congressman and voting rights champion John Lewis, who nearly died on that bridge in Selma, watched as the Supreme Court “put a dagger in [its] heart” with the Shelby County ruling. He saw in that moment what he had seen time and again throughout his life in activism, public service, and the Jim Crow South:
The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.
Congressman Lewis passed away in 2020 still fighting to restore what the VRA lost in 2013. The VRA restoration legislation, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, is now named in his honor. It sets up a new preclearance regime that not only covers certain states and municipalities with a history of voting discrimination, which was the issue before the Supreme Court, but it also covers voting practices with a discriminatory past, such as those impacting non-English speaking voters. Preclearance is designed to stop disenfranchisement before it starts.
As important as Congressman Lewis knew the VRA to be, he also knew that it was just one part of a much bigger picture. Lewis wrote the Voter Empowerment Act to advance proactive measures like online and same-day registration and youth preregistration and accountability supports like paper ballots and manual recounts. He also coauthored the For the People Act, which includes those measures and sets the stage for VRA restoration as part of a comprehensive democracy reform package.
Passing the For the People Act, though, as we expect the House do in the coming weeks, will not be the end of the fight. As Congressman Lewis put it:
Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
Ensuring that every eligible voter can cast a ballot that counts is a fight without an end.