The fight over voter rights and access in Texas is now a race. With the Texas Legislature back in session thanks to the return of some of the Democrats who fled the state to stall the matter, Senate Bill 1 is expected to become law soon. However, the U.S. House of Representatives has just passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which could negate much of SB 1 if eventually signed into law.
The bill is named after the late and legendary Georgia representative who was a civil rights icon in the 1960s and fought tooth and nail for voter rights as both an activist and a member of congress. The bill would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act that were gutted by the Supreme Court that required states with a long history of racial discrimination at the polls, such as Texas, to seek approval from the Justice Department before changing rules about elections.
The bill would not likely be retroactive, meaning that states that have already passed sweeping election rights and access restrictions would probably get away with their new rules. Texas’ attempt at such reform is seen as the most draconian and disenfranchising in the country, but it still remains in process thanks to a coordinated walkout by Democrats to deny the Texas House a quorum to proceed.
Should the John Lewis Act pass the Senate, the entirety of the bill would have to be approved by the Biden Administration’s Department of Justice. Considering that the president has blasted the Texas bill as “un-American” and “undemocratic,” most of the provisions in SB 1 would likely be denied. Voting rights experts have repeatedly pointed out that the changes to Texas election law in the bill, such as the restriction of mail-in voting, hours that polls can be open, and an end to drive-thru voting, will disproportionately affect voters of color as well as the poor.
Texas Republicans have long said that the new rules are necessary to prevent election fraud. This explanation is unlikely to pass legal scrutiny as Texas officials have so far not been able to produce any evidence of widespread, systemic voter fraud in the state.
The John Lewis Act should not be confused with the For The People Act, another piece of voting legislation passed by the U.S. House. That bill includes a broad set of minimum voting practices that states must adhere to but has stalled in the Senate. The John Lewis Act is much narrower in scope and aimed directly at preventing states, mostly former Confederate ones, from placing undue burdens on marginalized voters.
That narrow focus will possibly give the John Lewis Act a chance in the Senate despite many Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying it is an unnecessary piece of government overreach on the states. Should it pass before Texas’ bill, it would be up to the Justice Department to decide if what Texas Republicans are attempting is racially motivated and harmful to voters of color. Thus far, Texas Republicans have failed miserably in proving the bill is not racist.