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  • The Voter Formation Project

Through Lines: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For The People Act

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about H.R. 1, a.k.a. the For the People Act, and the likelihood of it passing in our current political environment. This weekend, a certain part-time houseboat dweller* and full-time** West Virginia Senator announced that he would not support the bill, which has been described as “the most significant democracy reform bill since the Voting Rights Act,” effectively killing its chance of passing in the Senate. ICYMI, the aforementioned Senator Joe Manchin, is the Senate’s swing vote: with him, Democrats have the 50 votes (+1 tiebreaker from the VP) that they need to pass big voting legislation, but without him, the odds of that are slim. Senator Manchin did, however, say that he would support H.R. 4, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. We’re here to tell you what that means.

*no shade, we would actually love to live on a houseboat.

** there’s some room for debate here, as Senators technically only work like 3-4 days a week


The Similarities

Both H.R. 1 and H.R. 4 are pro-voting rights.

Okay, that’s not the only similarity. Both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Act seek to fundamentally reform our democracy to make access to the ballot box more universal. Both would be a check on the national attack on voting rights, and both would make it harder for states to suppress Black and Brown votes. But the two bills approach the issue in *completely* different ways, which means that for either to achieve their end goal, both have to be passed.

The Differences

Some refer to the John Lewis Act as “H.R. 1-lite”, which, while not totally accurate, isn’t totally inaccurate either. Let’s break it down:

H.R. 1 IS BROAD: it aims to completely transform the way elections happen in this country, from financing to campaign law to the ballot box. The For the People Act mandates a number of practices that would expand access to voting for all Americans (think: automatic voter registration, early voting), while banning some classic voter suppression practices (unnecessary voter-roll purges and partisan gerrymandering, among others). We covered the bill in depth in an earlier blog post, but, fundamentally, the For the People Act is a democracy reform bill.

H.R. 4 IS MUCH NARROWER: it was written to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, much of which was gutted in a 2013 Supreme Court decision. Most crucially, the John Lewis Act would restore a process called “preclearance”, which requires states with histories of racially discriminatory voting laws to get approval from the Justice Department’s civil rights division before implementing or changing any voting laws. The John Lewis Act focuses on, and is crucial to, preventing the passage of laws that limit the ability of Black and Brown voters to make their voices heard.

Why We Need Both

As of May 19th, state legislatures across the country have introduced 408 voter suppression bills this year alone. Of those:

  • 15 states are trying to limit early voting,

  • 41 states are trying to limit absentee voting,

  • 18 states are trying to increase voter roll purging, and

  • 32 states are enacting stricter voter ID laws.

The For the People Act would prohibit many of the provisions in these laws, and it would apply retroactively, enabling millions of Americans - especially Black and Brown Americans - to exercise their right to vote safely, securely, and equitably. The John Lewis Act, on the other hand, would stop any future laws from taking effect in states with a history of discrimination without the OK of the Justice Department. These bills rely on each other to be effective: if we pass the John Lewis Act alone, we aren’t broadening access to the ballot box; and if we pass the For the People Act alone, we’re not preventing states from passing racially discriminatory voting laws.

The right to vote is under attack in the United States. And if we’re going to be in the fight to protect the right to vote (and, personally speaking, we sure are), we have to be in the fight to pass both H.R. 1 and H.R. 4.


Thanks for reading, y’all! Talk soon.

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin

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