UC Berkeley professor, city officials react to failure to pass John R. Lewis Act

Photo of a sheet of "I Voted" stickers on a table
Josh Kahen/File
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, intended to restore the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, failed to pass the U.S. Senate Jan. 19.

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The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, a comprehensive piece of federal voting rights legislation, was struck down on the U.S. Senate floor the night of Jan. 19.

The John Lewis Act was an effort to restore the full protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which were limited by the Supreme Court in 2013, said UC Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich in an email. According to Reich, the act failed because it did not receive the 60 votes necessary to overcome the Senate filibuster. Democrats in the Senate were also unable to obtain the 50 votes necessary to change the filibuster rule.

The failure to pass voting rights legislation has many concerned about the state of the nation’s democracy.

“It concerns me because voting rights are at the heart of our democracy, and initiatives at the state level to make voting more difficult — especially for people of color — are, in my view, steps backwards,” Reich said in the email.

City Councilmember Ben Bartlett echoed these sentiments.

According to Bartlett, there is a lack of will among Democrats to accomplish voting rights and the Senate has grown too powerful.

“As an African American whose family fought for the right to vote and fought for freedom in this country, I am disgusted and incensed,” Bartlett said.

Though voting rights are in jeopardy across the nation, Bartlett said he believes that Berkeley voters, and California voters more generally, are less affected.

Bartlett said voters in Berkeley and across California are met with progressive voter laws, providing services such as mail-in ballots and quick and easy voter registration.

According to an email from Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín, the city and county have taken steps in recent years to make voting more accessible.

“A new ballot box program where people can drop off their ballot at a secure voting box was launched a few elections ago, and greatly expanded in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Arreguín said.

Both Arreguín and Bartlett noted that though voting rights are afforded to people in Berkeley and throughout California, that is not the reality for the rest of the nation.

According to Bartlett, the failure to pass the John Lewis Act means upholding the “inequitable status quo.”

“While we are fortunate to live in a state that respects the right to vote, we know that these cherished rights are under assault throughout much of the country,” Arreguín said.

The mayor expressed disappointment that the act will not go forward, especially during a time when people’s faith in democracy is “eroding.”

In spite of the act’s failure to pass, Bartlett urges people to have hope.

“When this happens, we don’t give up hope, we dig in, we rebuild, we come back, and we win — even if it takes 40 years,” Bartlett said.

Anna Armstrong is a research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @annavarmstrongg.