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'There is no time to waste:' Blumenthal introduces a voting rights bill named for John Lewis

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut)
Lauren Victoria Burke
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut)

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal joined almost all of his Senate Democratic colleagues to introduce the “John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act” — named after a late civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman.

“John Lewis was a civil rights hero, an icon, a trailblazer, a model, and a mentor to so many of us. In honor of his memory and in tribute to the ideals of democracy that he championed, we should stand up to this assault on our democracy,” Blumenthal said during a Senate judiciary hearing last week. “There is no time to waste.”

Lewis was one of the “Big Six” leaders of groups who organized the 1963 March on Washington. In 1965, he led the first of three Selma to Montgomery marches across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. He and hundreds of others marched through tear gas and other police use of force for the right to vote. Lewis later served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia's fifth district from 1987 until his death in 2020.

Now, Blumenthal is concerned about more than 400 bills introduced in nearly every state that restrict early voting at the polls and by mail, or require voter IDs. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 18 Republican-led states have already enacted laws that make it harder for people to vote.

“Nothing is more fundamental and urgent than this legislation to protect voting rights, which are under unprecedented assault in states around the country,” Blumenthal said. “This year alone, we have experienced the most destructive legislative session for voting rights in generations, with states and localities enacting a torrent of new voting restrictions, all of it designed to suppress the vote, to curtail the franchise, to move back the clock on voting rights."

The bill would restore crucial protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. A 2013 Supreme Court decision removed key provisions in the law to allow states to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

During the last presidential election, at least 16 states required an excuse in order for a voter to cast an absentee ballot.

“Georgia just recently passed a law restricting voting access that targets voting by mail just after an election where, I don’t think incidentally, voters of color relied on absentee ballots at unprecedented levels. In the case of Blacks and Asians, voters had higher rates than white voters,” U.S Senator Jon Ossoff of Georgia said during a Senate judiciary hearing last week.

“These laws make mail-in voting and early voting more difficult, they manipulate the boundaries of districts to reduce minority representation, and they've led to a purge of up to 3.1 million voters from the rolls in areas that were once covered by the Voting Rights Act preclearance requirement,” Blumenthal said. “Protecting the right to vote very simply should not be a partisan issue. In fact, voting rights are widely supportive throughout American society on the left, right, center, private and public sectors.”

The U.S. The House of Representatives passed the bill in August. It still needs approval by the Senate before it can be sent to President Biden to be signed into law.

Natalie is a former news fellow with WSHU Public Radio.