Rep. John Lewis Pushes For Updated Voting Rights Act

Jul 17, 2013
Originally published on July 17, 2013 4:05 pm

The Senate Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on Wednesday on the future of the Voting Rights Act. In June, the Supreme Court nullified a key provision of the act, ruling the law was outdated.

The decision ended the requirement for more than a dozen states to clear new election laws with the Department of Justice.

Now it’s up to Congress to update the formula used to determine which states need extra oversight, based on their history of past voting rights abuses.

The Senate committee will hear from U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a civil rights leader who led the 1965 peace march at Selma.

“I do feel a major responsibility to do my part in helping to protect the right of all of our citizens to participate in the democratic process,” Lewis told Here & Now.

The committee will also hear from Wisconsin Congressman James Sensenbrenner, who led the effort to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006.


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It's HERE AND NOW. Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is hearing testimony on the future of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. There's a hearing in the House tomorrow. The Supreme Court struck down a key provision of that act last month which had required nine states with a history of discrimination to get federal approval before changing their election laws. That decision allowed some of those states to implement voter ID laws. Now it's up to Congress to update the Voting Rights Act, but it's not clear what is going to happen.

Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader John Lewis is leading the effort in the House of Representatives. And Congressman, first off, what are your plans to update this law?

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: My plans are very simple. The only thing that we need to do is come up with a new map that not only covers the covered states but look at other places in America, but especially in the South, in those states that are trying to take us back to another period. I think it's important for members of Congress to understand and for members of the Supreme Court to understand there's some history here, and they must not forget their history. One thing I tried to suggest in reacting to the Supreme Court decision that I wish that these men, only men voted to strike down a certain section of the Voter Rights Act of '65, that they should be able to come and walk in our shoes.

HOBSON: And we should remind listeners who don't know you, this issue is obviously very personal to you. You were one of the original Freedom Riders during the civil right movement. You walked with Martin Luther King at Selma, were beaten by Alabama state troopers. You've seen racism really in its worst form in this country. Do you feel a personal responsibility to shepherd this legislation through?

LEWIS: I do feel a major responsibility to do my part in helping to protect the rights of all of our citizens to participate in the democratic process. I've said it in the past and I will say it again, that the vote is the most powerful nonviolent instrument or tool we have in a democratic society. It is powerful and it's almost sacred, and we must not do anything to diminish the power of the vote. People should be able to understand that a few short years ago that people stood in unmovable lines.

A few short years ago, people were asked to count the number of bubbles in a bar of soap, the number of jellybeans in a jar. People that I knew bled, some people died for the right to vote, or trying to help others to get that right.

HOBSON: Well, do you think it was a mistake then to let things get to this point, to let this law get so out of date? Your Republican colleague, Steve Stockman responded to the Supreme Court decision saying we're pleased the Supreme Court realizes its not 1965 anymore.

LEWIS: It may not be 1965 anymore, but just in 2006, both Democrats and Republicans came together, not a single member of the United States Senate voted against the reauthorization of the act. And only 33 members of the House voted against the reauthorization of the act. And every Republican president since the voting rights was signed by President Lyndon Johnson have supported the reauthorization of the act. We did our homework and we continue to do our homework.

I think Chief Justice Roberts and some others have always had it in for the whole question of race, whether it's in affirmative action or whether it's dealing with voting rights. People must never forget that the scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in every corner, every fiber of American society, even when it comes to our politics.

HOBSON: But the hearing on this issue is going to be led by one of the Republicans, Trent Franks, who voted against reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act.

LEWIS: Well, I would say to my former colleague in the House, come and walk in my shoes, come and walk across Edmund Pettus Bridge, come and stand in a line in Selma, Alabama, come and go with me to the Delta, Mississippi, stand and see the long lines in Ohio.

HOBSON: Congressman, I want to ask you about one of the things that Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the decision. He said African-American voter turnout exceeded white voter turnout in five of the six states originally covered by Section 5. He was talking about in 2004 which was the last big election before the law was reauthorized. What about that argument that things have changed? The black registration rate in Mississippi is now four percentage points higher than the white rate.

LEWIS: Well, I think, it only proves that the more work and the effort of people - got out there and did the necessary, nitty-gritty, hard work in the heat of the day. It worked because we had the Voting Rights Act. And that's why we still need the factions of that in question in days, months and years to come.

HOBSON: Well, you say it worked. Some people may look at that and say, it worked and maybe we don't need it in the way that it was anymore because it did work.

LEWIS: We still need it in another period in the history of our country. Right after Reconstruction, people were registered. My great grandfather who had been a slave became a registered voter. There were black men elected to the Congress in a few short years. Their seats - they were driven out of office. People would deny the right to register to vote by harassment, intimidation, by their clans and other racist groups in the American South.

HOBSON: Would you say that, right now, the biggest concern for you are these voter ID laws that are being passed in states around the country? Is that why you think this law is most needed in 2013?

LEWIS: I am very concern why the voter ID laws that hold efforts to shorten the time for early voting and in voting on Sundays, all of these issues are major concern of mine. People can be very devious, finding other ways, other tricks, other tactics and techniques to make it hard, to make it difficult for people to participate in the democratic process.

HOBSON: Are you optimistic, Congressman, that your colleagues are going to vote with you and pass another version of the Voting Rights Act?

LEWIS: I am very optimistic, very hopeful that Democrats and Republicans would come together and the majority in the Senate as well as in the House.

HOBSON: Congressman John Lewis represents Georgia's 5th District. He's going to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the future of the Voting Rights Act. Congressman, thank you so much for talking with us.

LEWIS: Well, thank you so much, sir.

HOBSON: And we'd love to hear your thoughts on this. Go to, and click on contact us. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.