This week, the world bids farewell to John Lewis, a civil rights legend who dedicated his life to the cause of advancing racial equality and whose legacy will be honored at events in Selma, Washington, and on Thursday at his funeral in Atlanta. And as the nation mourns his death and celebrates his contributions to society, one powerful way to honor his life is for Congress to pass a new Voting Rights Act to secure and enforce the right to vote for every American citizen, no matter their race, class, or creed.
Congressman Lewis, a Democrat of Georgia, started his political career as an activist, staging sit-ins and boycotts in a movement that eventually brought about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a remarkable legislative achievement that fundamentally transformed American democracy. Before the Voting Rights Act, Black people effectively couldn’t vote. In 1964, for example, only 6.7 percent of Black Mississippians were registered to vote. Lewis and other activists put themselves in harm’s way, getting beaten and arrested, fighting for the right to vote until it was finally secured.
But after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, efforts to suppress voters, particularly voters of color, continued. Many states deprive felons of voting rights, and arrests and convictions of people of color have skyrocketed since the law’s passage. Then, in 2013 the Supreme Court defanged key parts of the law — overturning federal oversight of voting measures in states and locales that have had a history of voter suppression. Since then, 25 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, have implemented new voting restrictions.
Altogether, these shifts have had the effect of reducing the political power of people of color across the country, reversing some earlier gains. For instance, in 1980 — 15 years after the Voting Rights Act was passed — only 5.8 percent of Black residents of Florida and Virginia and 3.4 percent of Black Kentucky residents, were deprived of voting rights because of a felony conviction. By 2016, though, roughly one in every five Black residents of Florida and Virginia, and one in every four Black Kentucky residents, couldn’t vote because of a past conviction, according to the Sentencing Project; Florida actually made it harder for former felons to win back voting rights during that span.
These race-based voter suppression patterns are not a coincidence or an accident. After North Carolina passed a strict voter-ID law, a federal court found that the law was designed to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”
While red states tend to be the ones to implement restrictive voting measures that disproportionately disenfranchise people of color — whose votes skew toward Democrats — blue states are also guilty of diluting the political power of black and brown voting blocs in local races. Many states redraw their district lines to create what the federal government calls “majority-minority” districts, concentrating Black and brown voters within one political boundary. While this is driven by a 1986 Supreme Court decision that sought to ensure that Black and brown voters — who were otherwise too thinly spread across districts to have much sway in elections — were given more political power by having more than 50 percent of the votes in one district, it has also had the adverse effect of limiting their voting power in surrounding districts. Some politicians have taken advantage of this by packing voters of color into districts where they already have political power. And New York, a solidly Democratic state, is known to have used rampant voter-suppression tactics. In Massachusetts, the deeply Democratic Legislature, in 2001, drew 17 legislative districts that courts later determined were designed to dilute Black and Latino political power.
The severe disadvantage that Black and brown voters tend to face at the polls — and voter suppression generally — is a blow to American democracy. In fact, the Economist Intelligence Unit, which measures the state of democracy in countries around the world, has downgraded the United States to a “flawed democracy” for the last three years.
“In different realms and in different spheres, we are seeing anti-voter activity, and this is all something the Voting Rights Act could do something about,” said Myrna Pérez, the director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. That’s why Congress should restore and modernize the Voting Rights Act. The House has already passed a bill — the Voting Rights Advancement Act — to do just that, but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has stalled it in that chamber for over 200 days.
“Our great nation’s history has only bent towards justice because great men like John Lewis took it upon themselves to help bend it,” McConnell said in a statement after Lewis’s death. But it’s McConnell’s fault that Lewis did not live long enough to see voting rights restored. In his refusal to give the bill a vote, the majority leader has been actively undoing Lewis’s work and pulling the nation back toward injustice. So if McConnell and his colleagues in the Senate want to live by Lewis’s example, it’s time for them to pass the House bill. It’s long overdue.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.