Members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. (the fraternity John Lewis was a member of), sing their fraternity hymn as other members of the public pay their respects at the casket of civil rights pioneer and longtime U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), as it sits at the top of the East Front Steps of the U.S. Capitol for a public viewing in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2020. Picture: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS
Members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc. (the fraternity John Lewis was a member of), sing their fraternity hymn as other members of the public pay their respects at the casket of civil rights pioneer and longtime U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA), as it sits at the top of the East Front Steps of the U.S. Capitol for a public viewing in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2020. Picture: REUTERS/LEAH MILLIS

Last week the world bade farewell to Democratic congressman John Lewis, a civil-rights legend who dedicated his life to the cause of advancing racial equality. As the nation mourns his death and celebrates his contributions to society, one powerful way to honour his life is for Congress to pass a new voting rights act to secure and enforce the right to vote for all American citizens, no matter their race, class or creed.

Lewis 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 act, black people in effect couldn’t vote. In 1964, for example, only 6.7% of black Mississippians were registered to vote. Yet even after the act was signed into law, efforts to suppress voters, particularly voters of colour, continued. Many states deprive felons of voting rights, and arrests and convictions of people of colour have skyrocketed since the law’s passage.

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 have implemented new voting restrictions.

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 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% of the votes in one district, it has also had the adverse effect of limiting their voting power in surrounding districts.

Congress should restore and modernise the act. The House of Representatives passed the Voting Rights Advancement Bill to do just that, but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has stalled it in that chamber for more than 200 days. /Boston, July 26

The Boston Globe

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