Fact Check: Breaking Down Mitch McConnell’s Spin On The John Lewis Voting Rights Bill

Fact Check: Breaking Down Mitch McConnell’s Spin On The John Lewis Voting Rights Bill

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Washington (CNN)Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was asked Tuesday where he stands on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a Democratic bill that aims to prevent states from implementing racially discriminatory voting laws.

McConnell’s response, in which he expressed opposition to the bill, omitted a bunch of key context, got at least one fact wrong, and misleadingly described a top Democrat’s comments on the issue.

McConnell’s office declined to comment on the record for this article.

    What the bill would do

      Before we break down McConnell’s words, here is some basic background about the John Lewis bill. Named for the late Democratic congressman and icon of the civil rights movement, the bill seeks to revive — and in some ways expand — a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: the “preclearance” formula that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013.

        Before the court struck down the provision, the Voting Rights Act required the governments of nine states, local governments within these nine states, and some specific local governments in six other states to get advance federal approval, known as preclearance, before implementing changes to their voting laws. The act — which the US Senate unanimously reauthorized in 2006 for another 25 years — required these governments to obtain this federal approval because they had discriminatory voting policies in place in 1964, 1968 or 1972. (Places could apply to be removed from the preclearance requirement after they had a clean record on voting rights for the past 10 years.)

        The Supreme Court ruling in 2013 invalidated the law’s preclearance formula. The court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the Voting Rights Act to use “decades-old data and eradicated practices” as the current basis for selecting which states are forced to go through preclearance.

          The ruling meant that the rest of the Voting Rights Act continued to exist, but preclearance could no longer occur until Congress created an acceptable new formula based on “current conditions.” Therefore, the formerly restricted states were allowed to implement new voting restrictions without obtaining federal permission first.

          The John Lewis bill — which faces a tough path to passage in the Senate — proposes a new preclearance formula. Let’s go through five claims McConnell made about the bill at a Tuesday press conference.

          1) The power of the Justice Department

          What the John Lewis bill does, McConnell said, “is grant to the Justice Department almost total ability to determine the voting systems of every state in America.”

          We’ll reserve firm judgment on this claim until we see a 2021 version of the John Lewis bill — the bill has not yet been introduced in Congress this year — but McConnell’s statement is not true of the version of the bill Democrats introduced in 2020.

          That 2020 bill would give the Justice Department more power over states’ voting laws than the department currently has. However, it would not require preclearance for every state or for every new voting law. Also, like the previous preclearance requirement, the proposed 2020 requirement would not let the Justice Department pick and choose its own preferred voting policies, only to accept or reject changes proposed by the state. For example, the department couldn’t respond to a state’s proposal for an ID law by, say, making the state set up 50 ballot drop boxes.

          Finally, as was the case before the Supreme Court ruling in 2013, the John Lewis bill would allow a state to get a federal court to review the policies rather than the attorney general — or go to court after getting shot down by the attorney general.

          “I do think McConnell has a point if his point is that part two of the bill represents a new and different regulatory approach. But I think it is at the very least an exaggeration to say that it will allow the DOJ to determine the voting systems of every state in America,” said Guy-Uriel Charles, a Duke University law professor and expert in elections law.

          We’re being cautious about judging this McConnell claim because key Democratic centrist Sen. Joe Manchin told ABC News in May, while speaking about the John Lewis bill, that it would be good to “apply that to all 50 states and territories.” Manchin’s office declined to elaborate Wednesday about what precisely Manchin was saying he wants to apply that broadly. But it is possible that a 2021 version of the bill could be written to subject every state to a preclearance requirement.

          Still, that likely wouldn’t mean the Justice Department would have free rein to select what voting systems every state would use.

          Here’s a basic summary of what the 2020 version of the bill proposed with regard to preclearance.

          States in which there were repeated voting rights violations in the previous 25 years would have to

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          Fact check: Breaking down Mitch McConnell’s spin on the John Lewis voting rights bill

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