Once noncontroversial, the landmark law has become partisan in the Trump era.

The House voted last week to restore key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the landmark law meant to protect black voters from racial discrimination.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) passed the House 228 to 187, with nearly every Democrat and only one Republican voting in support. The bill would return oversight of state election law to the federal government. 

Under the Voting Rights Act, the federal government is responsible for overseeing state election laws in nine states and dozens of counties across the country which had displayed a track record of discriminating against black voters. 

The law was designed to protect and expand racial minorities’ voting rights and it is widely perceived as having succeeded in that aim.

In the 20 years after the law passed, the difference in registration rates between white and black voters narrowed from nearly 30 percentage points in the early 1960s to just eight points by the early 1970s, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, an independent, nonpartisan law and policy organization.

Rep. Tom Malinowski
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), a co-sponsor of the legislation. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Voting Rights Act proved so effective that the U.S. Department of Justice once referred to it as “the single most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever passed by Congress.” 

The law was reauthorized several times, most recently in 2006 with substantial bipartisan support, when it passed unanimously in the Senate and was signed into law by President Bush.

But the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder invalidated the provision of the Voting Rights Act mandating federal oversight of state elections. 

In a 5-4 ruling, the conservative-leaning court ruled that federal oversight was no longer necessary in the nine, mostly Southern states, thanks to the progress that had been made in combating discriminatory voting laws.

“The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” the court’s decision read. 

In the six years since the court’s decision, several of the nine states previously covered by federal oversight have made it substantially more difficult to vote. States like Texas and North Carolina established voter ID laws and a 2018 Brennan Center report found that previously covered states purged voters from their voter rolls at much higher rates than non-covered states. 

In Georgia, the state purged twice as many voters — 1.5 million — between 2012 and 2016 as it did between 2008 and 2012.

Democrats contend the VRAA will reign in these voter suppression tactics and make it easier for Americans to vote in elections. 

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), a co-sponsor of the legislation, spoke of the bill’s necessity after voting to pass the bill in the House.

“The right to vote is fundamental to our democracy, and we must stand against any attempt to engineer the outcome of elections by making it harder for eligible voters to participate. Every voice deserves to be heard,” Malinowski said in a statement.

The VRAA would establish a new a new criteria for determining which states have committed voting rights violations in the past 25 years and must therefore obtain preclearance from the Department of Justice before making changes to election laws. 

The bill faces steep odds of becoming law given resistance from the Republican-led Senate and the Trump administration, which has threatened to veto the legislation.