Wednesday, the United States Senate failed to change Senate rules in order to advance the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act sponsored by Congresswoman Terri Sewell (D-Selma). Both U.S. Senators from Alabama, Richard Shelby (R) and Tommy Tuberville (R) opposed Sewell’s controversial legislation and Democrats’ efforts to pass it by changing Senate rules to end the filibuster. Two Democrats joined with all 50 Republicans to protect and preserve the rules of the Senate. This effectively killed Sewell’s controversial John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act bill.

Republicans argued that the legislation would have federalized elections and seriously diminished election integrity by striking down state voter ID laws, allowing vote harvesting, vote drop boxes, month-long voting, and other highly controversial practices. Sewell’s bill also publicly funded election campaigns.

“Democrats are deploying rhetorical gymnastics,” Tuberville said in a speech on the Senate floor. “So let me be clear: FIRST, every American already HAS the legal right to vote. SECOND, the number of people voting in elections is generally going up, not down. THIRD, the Democrats’ bill does not 'add' or 'restore' any legal right to vote. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the civil rights movement were about correcting a horribly flawed system so that it worked for all citizens. It was – without a doubt – monumental and the right thing to do. But this bill is about manipulating the system for the benefit of one party. This bill gives power to the federal government to run our elections, a role states have traditionally held to ensure their unique voting districts are accounted for.

Sewell serves as Co-Chair of the Congressional Voting Rights Caucus. On Aug. 24, 2021, her H.R. 4 passed the House of Representatives on a party-line vote of 219 to 213. On Nov. 3, 2021, it failed in the Senate after every Senate Republican voted to block debate on the bill. Sewell urged the Senate to change Senate rules on a party-line vote in order for Democrats to pass her bill. Moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona) however would not go along with this scheme, so H.R. 4 was defeated again, despite President Joe Biden’s (D) urging Democrats to back the changes. The Senate voted to leave the filibuster in place by a vote of 52 to 48 effectively killing H.R. 4 in this Congress.

“Tonight, Senate Republicans showed exactly how they want to be remembered in the history books, siding with opponents to our democracy over Foot Soldiers and Freedom Fighters like John Lewis and Dr. King,” Sewell said. “The failure of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act is particularly devastating given that the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed the Senate 98-0 as recently as 2006. In fact, sixteen of those same Republican Senators who voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act in 2006 voted to block voting rights tonight, including Alabama’s Senator Richard Shelby.

Sewell is the author and lead sponsor of H.R. 4, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the requirement that Alabama and dozens of other states have to get preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department for redistricting and voting law changes. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Shelby versus Holder decision in 2013 that that section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was archaic and unconstitutional and that the problems that the VRA was passed to address no longer exists in America.

With the 60 vote filibuster still in place, the Democrats’ voting rights bill is effectively dead, and the President’s Build Back Better social spending and climate change agenda is also apparently dead. Democrats may have to adopt a more moderate agenda that can get bipartisan support ahead of midterm elections.

Sewell, who represents Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District, is the only Democrat in Alabama’s congressional delegation.

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