Opinion: Will Move to Purge Ohio Voting Rolls Kickstart Congressional Action?

Justice Department no ally on civil rights issue

Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., recounts his experience in Selma, Alabama, to a group of students gathered on the House steps on April 15, 2015. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., recounts his experience in Selma, Alabama, to a group of students gathered on the House steps on April 15, 2015. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted August 10, 2017 at 5:04am

Fifty-two years ago this week, John Lewis of Georgia was a young activist, not the Democratic congressman he is today. Yet he got a warmer welcome from the then-president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, than from today’s occupant of the White House.

On the Twitter feed of the longtime member of the U.S. House of Representatives, you can see a picture celebrating that time a few decades ago, when, with Democratic and Republican support, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed and then signed.

Lewis was one of those who suffered arrests and shed blood to make it so. You might think that at 77 years of age, he has earned the right to relax just a little. But instead of celebrating progress made, he has to ignore occasional insults from President Donald Trump and some of his congressional colleagues, while refighting a version of that same fight for voting rights.

Every day there is that reminder, whether it is a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, stacked with a rogue’s gallery of folks with a history of searching for nonexistent hordes of fraudulent voters, or news that Trump’s Justice Department has joined Ohio’s campaign to purge its voter rolls.

How many in Congress will stand with their colleague and other leaders to strengthen rather than dilute the power of that defining law from 52 years ago? How many will stand with a president who asked minority communities to support him — “what do you have to lose” was both question and challenge — with a grab bag of policies that illustrates exactly what his statements meant?

Moving forward?

How many will join moral and legislative efforts to move forward, not backward?

Action on changes to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whose key provisions were invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2013, might discourage the states that are increasingly narrowing the electorate. Inaction has emboldened states to pass laws that stepped right up to the line of unconstitutionality and occasionally crossed over, violating the spirit, if not always the letter, of that hard-won 1965 achievement voted for (and against) by politicians of the time. History has not treated the “no” votes kindly.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case deciding the legality of Ohio’s move to purge infrequent voters, with the politically appointed but not career attorneys in the Jeff Sessions-led Justice Department siding with the state. Ohio starts by looking at voters who have not voted in two years. When they fail to respond to a notice verifying their address or vote in several subsequent elections, they are removed. While a federal court agreed that the law violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, who knows what the conservative Supreme Court will find?

The Department of Justice’s stand, a 180-degree swivel away from the position of the Obama administration, is in keeping with the doings of the Election Integrity Commission, searching for all those imaginary fraudulent voters the president is certain caused his popular-vote defeat.

If, after the Voting Rights Act was weakened, Congress had quickly stepped up to write a version of the bill that would pass Supreme Court muster, would states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina and Texas have passed voting restrictions that have been mired in lawsuits?

No help from Congress

But Congress did nothing, perhaps cynically realizing that voting, like health care and so much else, could be exploited as partisan electoral strategy. Tellingly, the Texas law has also been gifted with Justice Department muscle, as Sessions and company did another about face, supporting a restrictive law Obama’s team had condemned.

In July, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security, and investigations, and House Judiciary ranking member John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., reintroduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2017 “to fully restore and modernize” the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In June, Lewis and Rep. Terri A. Sewell, D-Ala., introduced a bill that would restore voting rights protections. The Congressional Black Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus endorsed the bill, which had the support of most House Democrats but none from Republicans.

It’s another case of a Congress too often splitting into camps, with the right to vote just another chance to chase advantage rather than justice. So John Lewis, who still bears the scars of that earlier grueling fight that cost the lives of citizens who deemed it worth the sacrifice, is teaching the same lessons in a squabbling congressional group that has seen dysfunction on many issues, but perhaps none so vital to democracy.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3