Texas, like many red states, is not known for protecting voting rights. Under GOP leadership, the state has been plagued by long lines at the polls, onerous voter ID requirements, gerrymandering and other efforts to tilt the scale in favor of Republicans.Yet two bills in Congress could save Texas and other states from Republican attacks on voting rights, and one of them is set to be voted on this week.
Previously, the Voting Rights Act provided a check on states like Texas. However, the VRA was gutted in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, where a key provision known as preclearance was struck down. Under preclearance states with a history of racist voter suppression (including Texas) had to get any approval from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for D.C before making any election-related changes. The Supreme Court argued that the coverage formula that determined which state was subject to preclearance was based on old data and that the states in question no longer engaged in such practices. Yet immediately after Shelby, Texas implemented a new strict voter ID law and a heavily gerrymandered redistricting map.
Had Democrats retaken the Texas House, they would have been able to block Republican attempts to suppress the vote even with the gutted VRA. Yet Democrats came up short in 2020 and the GOP enters a crucial redistricting year with another trifecta. To make matters worse, Trump’s baseless allegations of widespread election fraud will likely be used to justify even more draconian policies to silence voters.
However, Democrats in Congress have proposed legilation to counter this. Two bills in particular would not only restore the voting rights but make them stronger than before.
The first is the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the late civil rights activist-turned congressman who almost died fighting for voting rights. The bill would restore preclearance by creating a new coverage formula based on the past 25 years. This 25-year period would move up continuously as time passed and states could come out of preclearance after 10 years if they established a clean record, thus addressing the Supreme Court’s objections. Given Texas’s actions in the immediate aftermath of Shelby, it would likely fall under the new coverage formula.
John Lewis unfortunately did not live to see the Voting Rights Act restored, but the House passed the bill in 2019, which was called the Voting Rights Advancement Act at the time. It was renamed in honor of Lewis after his death in 2020. The John Lewis Act was blocked by Mitch McConnell but with Democrats in control of the Senate it can finally move forward.
The second bill is the For the People Act, which the House is set to vote on this week. Perhaps the most significant change in the For The People Act would be the creation of an independent 15-person commission that would be in charge of redrawing all congressional districts. To prevent partisan gerrymandering the commission would be composed of five Democrats, five Republicans and five Independents or members or smaller party. This is similar to the redistricting commissions that have already been implemented in a number of states. State legislatures would no longer be able to draw the lines in favor of one party or the other. Fair congressional districts would be a huge deal in the Lone Star State, which is home to some of the most blatantly gerrymandered districts in the country.
The For The People Act would strengthen voter rights in a number of other ways. It would require states establish automatic and same day voter registration, which Texas currently lacks, and online voter registration, which Texas only has in a limited form. People without photo identification would be allowed to vote if they signed a sworn written statement, undoing Texas’ strict voter ID restrictions. The bill would also has provisions for election security and campaign finance reform, such as mandating paper ballots and requiring “dark money” groups to disclose donors.
Texans deserve strong protections for voting rights, and both the For The People Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act would be an enormous step in the right direction. And before Republicans object, they should know that it’s not entirely clear that they would be hurt by these reforms. Research indicates that more people voting doesn’t always help the Democrats and Texas Republicans still managed to win across the board in 2020 in spite of the state seeing its highest turnout since 1992. Furthermore, the party coalitions are shifting in ways that challenge conventional wisdom about voting demographics. The great irony is that strengthening voting rights may end up saving the Republicans from themselves.
Photo: Mark Felix for The Washington Post via Getty Images