The John Lewis Voting Rights Act and Florida Senate Bill 90: An Explainer
As the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act sits stalled in the U.S. Senate, Florida’s Senate Bill 90 has been challenged in a federal lawsuit. Each promises to enact several changes to how votes are cast and counted in the United States.
SB 90 is being challenged by several voting advocacy groups, including the NAACP and the League of Women Voters of Florida. Critics say the elections measure is an attack on voting rights, especially on poor people and people of color. League of Women Voters of Lee County President Sarah McDonald is not directly involved in the lawsuit, but said she supports the litigation.
“Anything that limits your ability to cast a legitimate ballot should be fought against,” McDonald said.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, H.R. 4, is an update to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The original Voting Rights Act was gutted in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a central part of it was unconstitutional. With that change, nine states were freed from needing preclearance from the federal government to change procedures and requirements around voting. This includes redistricting.
“The major conflict is the difference between who should control voting,” said Florida Gulf Coast University Political Science professor Peter Bergerson. “Should it be something that the federal government should do? Or should it be something that the states do?”
Supporters of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act feel that federal standards for voting regulations will make it easier to vote. Opponents think states should have full control over their elections.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore the requirement for preclearance, with a new framework for determining what entities must receive it. “If some of the cities, counties, states wanted to adjust somehow their voting status, they would have to get approval in advance from the Department of Justice,” Bergerson said.
An entity would need to receive approval from the federal government if any of the following had occurred:
- Fifteen or more voting rights violations occurred in the state during the previous 25 years
- Ten or more voting rights violations occurred during the previous 25 years, and at least one of the violations was committed by the state itself
- Three or more violations occurred during the previous 25 years and the state administers the elections
Key provisions in the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would make voting more accessible to Americans. Citizens could register to vote and vote on the same day. Election Day would become a national holiday. There would also be more voting precincts.
In addition to making elections more open, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would prohibit practices that result in vote dilution, the weakening of minority vote strength.
Bergerson said vote dilution is “kind of like gerrymandering. Fewer voting places, fewer times of which they can vote. If you divide those geographical areas, that would dilute their overall strength.”
Vote dilution is one violation of the proposed law. Other violations include:
- If members of a protected class, such as a minority race or language group, face greater burdens to election participation than other voters
- If a state or political party’s voting qualification results in the denial of a person’s right to vote based on race
- If a proposed redistricting map is found to be discriminatory toward a protected class
A practice is not considered a violation if another practice expands to offset a restriction. For example, closing a precinct would not be a violation if a new precinct was opened nearby.
If H.R. 4 is passed into law, claims of violations would be litigated in D.C. District Court. During such legal proceedings, the court would consider the history of voting discrimination in the state, county or jurisdiction being challenged. The court would also look at any voting practices that enhance the opportunity for discrimination, and the extent that a minority group bears the effects of discrimination in housing, education, employment, and transportation.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act aims to prevent voting practices that unduly impact people of color. It’s named for the late Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, who worked toward justice and equality for Black people, especially with respect to voting.
“It’s very hard for our country to face the racial division that we have had,” Bergerson said. “As minorities have gained more voting power and strength, they also want to get rid of the leftover provisions which dilute the vote.”
Florida Senate Bill 90
According to the voting advocacy groups challenging SB 90, the new law is a violation of voting rights.
“It limits poor people,” McDonald said. “Poor people and people in rural areas.”
SB 90, signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis in 2021, primarily addresses voting-by-mail and registering to vote. Many of the provisions in it make changes to when and who can turn in a vote-by-mail ballot. In addition, the length of time for the validity of a mail-in ballot request has been reduced.
Under SB 90, an approved request for a mail-in ballot is valid through the end of the calendar year of the next general election. This means voters will have to request a mail-in ballot every election cycle.
Voters may choose to bring their mail-in ballot to a drop box or polling location during early voting hours. An early version of SB 90 eliminated drop boxes, but the version that was passed into law did away with that provision. All drop boxes must be monitored by an employee of the county’s supervisor of elections office at all times in which ballots can be dropped off.
With the changes implemented in SB90, a person cannot be in possession of more than two completed vote-by-mail ballots, other than the ballots of the individual and their immediate family. This includes supervised voting at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Anyone attempting to submit more than two ballots will be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor.
This provision would have the most impact on disabled voters, who are more likely to need help returning their ballots, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Black and Latino voters are also likely to be affected, they say, since a smaller percentage of them have access to vehicles.
The trial for SB90 started in January and is ongoing. The federal judge presiding over the trial ordered lawyers on each side to explain how the legal challenge would be affected by another elections bill, SB 524, that state lawmakers passed in the 2022 that also calls for sweeping changes to elections.
This story was written by Alana Brooks, a student of Florida Gulf Coast University's Journalism program as part of a Senior Capstone project.