On December 6th, The House of Representatives passed HR4, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which updates the 1965 Voting Rights Act in light of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling which invalidated portions of the law. In that case, the court ruled that, while Federal election oversight was Constitutional, it had to be based on contemporary data. This bill attempts to do just that.

Yet although the Voting Rights Act (including the Federal pre-clearance requirement) has long enjoyed bipartisan support (an update in 2006 passed the Senate unanimously), but this bill passed along party lines (only 1 Republican voted for it) and would likely be vetoed by Trump even if it passed the Senate.

In light of their previous support for voting rights, what accounts for this near unanimous Republican opposition to this bill? Statements from Republicans would be a great source, but ideally I'd like a bit more analysis than just quoting a public statement.

The New York Times provides a simple explanation of this bill:

The measure is a direct response to the 2013 Supreme Court decision in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the justices invalidated a key portion of the law. They asserted that the federal oversight of elections was no longer necessary in nine states, mostly in the South, because of strides made in advancing voting rights since passage of the 1965 law.

In the Shelby case, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that Congress remained free to try to impose federal oversight on states where voting rights were at risk, but must do so based on contemporary data. The measure passed on Friday was an attempt to do just that.

Specifically, it would update the parameters used to determine which states and territories need to seek approval for electoral procedures, requiring public notice for voting changes and expanding access for Native American and Alaska Native voters.

House Passes Voting Rights Bill Despite Near Unanimous Republican Opposition


3 Answers 3


Because it prevents suppression of poor and minority voters.

Within hours of Shelby County v. Holder, which removed a requirement for states with a history of voter suppression to clear changes to voting laws beforehand, these states once again started to suppress voting rights:

The Brennan Center for Justice has consistently found that states previously covered by the preclearance requirement have engaged in recent, significant efforts to disenfranchise voters. A 2018 Brennan Center report concluded that previously covered states have purged voters off their rolls at a significantly higher rate than non-covered jurisdictions. Our 2018 State of Voting Report found that previously covered states have enacted a series of laws and others measures that restrict voting since Shelby County ended preclearance.

Other enacted measures include:

A 2018 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (a bipartisan, independent commission of the United States federal government) found that there had been a growth in discriminatory laws making it harder for minorities to vote. The commission found that at least 23 states enacted restrictive voter laws, such as closures of polling places, cuts to early voting, purges of voter rolls and imposition of strict voter ID laws.

These changes can still be successfully challenged - such as North Carolina's voter suppression law which 'targeted African Americans "with almost surgical precision"' - but the process takes years.

Republicans have expressed openly that these changes in voting laws after Shelby County v. Holder are very much by design used to suppress minority voters. Sometimes the dog-whistle "states-rights" is used instead of openly admitting that voter suppression is the desired outcome (the "state right" in question is the right to disenfranchise voters).

The act is unlikely to pass in the Senate as Mitch McConnell has vowed to stop any bills passed by the House.

A news article shared on Jim Sensenbrenners (R) website attributes the "states-right" argument to House Republicans:

On Friday, Republicans accused the Voting Rights Advancement Act of doing more than just reinstating the preclearance formula, contending the bill constituted broad federal overreach of states’ rights.

The White House has released a statement opposing the bill using the "states rights" argument:

These amendments raise serious policy concerns because the Federal Government would be granted excessive control over State and local election practices.

It also summarizes its understanding of the bill:

Section 3 of H.R. 4 would amend the VRA by setting forth a new coverage formula that subjects certain States and local subdivisions to Federal preclearance requirements before undertaking certain election activities. For example, the coverage formula would place restrictions on States with “15 or more voting rights violations [that] occurred in . . . the previous 25 calendar years.” Once a State or locality is covered by the formula, it would need permission from the Attorney General or Federal courts before conducting certain election activities prescribed by the bill.

They object that requiring preclearance if a state violated voting rights 15 or more times in the past 25 years does not reflect "current needs" (the main issue in Shelby County v. Holder was that a list of states needing preclearance was hardcoded in the Voting Rights Act, which the Voting Rights Advancement Act attempts to correct with the 25 year timeframe).

They further object that the act could interfer with the implementation of voter ID laws or changing of voting locations (both of which Republicans use to disenfrancise minority voters), and that transparency requirements around election activities would be unconstitutional.

  • 2
    Comments deleted. Please keep comments 1. respectful to other users and 2. relevant to the answer.
    – Philipp
    Dec 7, 2019 at 18:14
  • 5
    You might be interested to read about the hard drives that were recovered after Thomas Hofeller's death.
    – Batman
    Dec 7, 2019 at 21:41
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Dec 10, 2019 at 5:01
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    Too many suppositions of motives, heavily partisan answer that puts the entire platform into question. I checked out the discussion that was moved to chat, and it's not brought anything else to light that isn't also partisan suppositions, including the cited court document. When citing long articles or court document, it would be much better to quote the most relevant part verbatim, else it looks like an appeal to authority or RS lawyering as is common on Wikipedia. Dec 14, 2019 at 2:18
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    The first few citations given, of third parties, support the idea that this is a GOP vs minorities thing, but if the quote of Trump is true, then every state that cares for all of its districts to be fully represented should be scared to death of this passing. What if someone who doesn't like the way your district votes mines records of the past 25 years, finds 15 events that, at least when described in a certain style, could pass as voting rights violations, takes it to a court that has similar biases to his, and the current AG has similar biases? If this takes place right after some
    – Post169
    Dec 14, 2019 at 21:00

Let's be clear about what we're talking about first. Shelby County v Holder was about the practice of preclearance, where a state needed Department of Justice approval to change voting laws. A major problem was the 2006 bulk renewal of the Voting Rights Act, which extended the preclearance rules, as written in 1975, until 2031.

A point of contention in the hearing was that the metrics used to determine who was, as was not, subject to preclearance was potentially outdated. From the SCOTUS transcript

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Which State has the greatest disparity in registration between white and African American?

GENERAL VERRILLI: I do not know that.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Massachusetts. Third is Mississippi, where again the African American registration rate is higher than the white registration rate

While the Massachusetts Secretary of State was incensed by that, he never disputed the fact that his state had the worst statistic in black vs white registration, yet was not under preclearance. To make matters worse, the Holder DOJ appeared to be fast-tracking New Hampshire out of preclearance despite not meeting the same metrics Shelby County had to

But there’s one big problem for New Hampshire: For almost all of the 44 years that it has been covered under Section 5, New Hampshire has failed to comply with the law. The two townships and eight towns failed to submit for preclearance many voting changes they have made over that period. In fact, a November 18 internal DOJ memorandum sent by Chris Herren, chief of the voting section, to Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, confirms that “town officials uniformly indicated that they were not aware of their obligations under Section 5.” Clearly, then, they don’t meet the ten-year “clean record” criterion needed to qualify for bailout.

DOJ cannot waive this requirement — a fact made clear when the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued its decision in the Shelby County case on May 18, 2012, upholding the constitutionality of Section 5 (the decision that is now before the Supreme Court). The appeals court noted that Shelby County was not entitled to bailout “because the county had held several special elections under a law for which it failed to seek preclearance” and because DOJ had objected to one submission. This affirmed the district court’s conclusion based on the “undisputed facts in the record” that Shelby County was “not eligible for bailout.” Under the statute, a “covered jurisdiction is only eligible for bailout if it has complied ‘with the requirement that no change covered by . . . [Section 5] has been enforced without preclearance.’”

And then this rather stark note

The internal DOJ November 18 memorandum indicates that, while 91.84 percent of eligible voters in New Hampshire are registered, “voter registration is lower in covered jurisdictions.” In fact, the registration rate drops steeply — to close to 70 percent — in four of the ten covered towns. In another two, the rate is lower than the state average. The memorandum also states that minority contacts in New Hampshire “were not aware of any active programs or efforts . . . to encourage voter registration or minority participation in the electoral process.” Yet these were not considered important factors by Voting Section Chief Herren and his team of lawyers, even though the statute says that covered jurisdictions must show “constructive efforts” to increase registration and voting and that a court should consider registration rates and disparities among them. Indeed, a standard part of the normal DOJ investigation is to interview minority contacts to see if they support bailout. The November 18 memorandum lists seven minority contacts. Four of the seven — including the president of the Manchester branch of the NAACP — opposed bailout.

It's hard not to note that there appeared to be a political angle there. The DOJ wanted to play games with Republican jurisdictions, while exonerating Democratic ones. The law the House It's also aimed at rolling back laws like voter ID, which are very contentious. From Mother Jones

It would initially cover 11 states: nine in the South, plus California and New York, which have more recently been found to discriminate against Latinos and Asian Americans. The bill would also require all states to get federal approval for election changes that are known to disproportionately affect voters of color, such as strict voter ID laws, tighter voter registration requirements, and polling place closures in areas with large numbers of minority voters.

It's worth noting that the rest of the Voting Rights Act was unaffected by the ruling. The Department of Justice can still file lawsuits against states actively engage in discriminatory acts. The Holder DOJ filed suit against North Carolina for voting rights violations after the Shelby decision.

  • So, the first part makes the case that the pre-clearance requirement in the Voting Rights Act was based on out of date information and enforced in an uneven way. But, then, shouldn’t Congress pass a new law that institutes an updated and more fair pre-clearance system? That’s certainly the stated intention of this law – does it not actually do that? As for voter ID laws, that’s a good point, but does the law actually block or discourage those laws, or just require pre-clearance for them in the specified states?
    – divibisan
    Dec 8, 2019 at 22:54
  • By the way, thanks for answering! I’ve gotten lots of comments from people on the right, but no answers until now. +1
    – divibisan
    Dec 8, 2019 at 23:01
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    @divibisan I've not seen any official quotes from Republicans (and this particular vote might break along party lines just because that's how Washington rolls), but there is a legitimate case to be made that preclearance is a political football. Again, the DOJ doesn't need preclearance to enforce the VRA
    – Machavity
    Dec 8, 2019 at 23:05
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    @Machavity Without preclearance, states will keep disenfranchising voters. It took 3 years to overturn the racist North Carolina voting law, and they simply enacted a new one in 2018 for the 2020 election.
    – tim
    Dec 9, 2019 at 8:19

Short Answer: H.R. 4 was opposed by Republicans supporting Rodney Davis' (R-IL) opposition to the bill in it's present form, primarily because of Republican opposition to any attempts of creating a vehicle for campaign financing subsidies from public funds. Since Democratic party members were unwilling to allow Davis' proposed remedy, the Republicans (except one) voted Nay.

In the following I detail why this is the correct answer.

First, how can one answer any question "Why do (Republicans/Democrats) oppose (some Bill)"? By supposition of motive? How do you know that the motive you guess is correct? By reading journalist's own guess work? How do you know the journalists are right? Or by trying to find the answer by listening to statements made about the subject first hand? I suggest it is the latter. Even if you like to suppose a certain motive, you would still have to demonstrate it in the arguments and have to consider the involved people's own statements before dismissing them and overriding them with your (or some journalist's) suppositions.

This particular question here is an interesting example case as there is no news article to be easily found on web search engines that gives an opposing statement. So how can we know what the motivations of the representatives were?

We have to go into the Congressional Records and read about the statements made in debate. Here is how you can do that. First you look up the bill, in this case H.R. 4 of the 116th congress 2019/20.

There in we see a plenary debate that was scheduled for one hour on December 6. So we can go to the Congressional Record and look up the House's plenary schedule on that date.

There we find the debate on H.R. 4 by searching the words, and here are the debate minutes.

It doesn't look like this debate took all of an hour that was scheduled for it, since only 2 representatives spoke about it over 5 minutes, and there were 2 recorded electronic votes that were set to take only 5 minutes.

So, it appears that the representatives present had mostly made up their mind or were behind the debate contribution of their single colleague who spoke. In case of the Republican Opposition the representative was Rodney Davis from Illinois.

When asked by the speaker pro tempore whether he opposed the bill, Davis replied he was opposed in its current form, and then proceeded to propose an amendment which, we may assume might have been at least a partial remedy to his opposition, and by the fact that no other Republican representative spoke on the subject, one may further assume that Davis was leading the Republican vote to a large extent. Here is this exchange from the record and proposed amendment:

Mr. RODNEY DAVIS of Illinois. Mr. Speaker, I have a motion to recommit at the desk. The SPEAKER pro tempore. Is the gentleman opposed to the bill? Mr. RODNEY DAVIS of Illinois. I am in its current form. The SPEAKER pro tempore. The Clerk will report the motion to recommit. The Clerk read as follows:

Mr. Davis moves to recommit the bill H.R. 4 to the Committee on the Judiciary with instructions to report the same back to the House forthwith with the following amendment: Page 39, after line 9, insert the following:


Nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act may be construed to allow fines or other amounts paid to the United States in connection with a violation of title I of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (52 U.S.C. 10301 et seq.), including any amount paid pursuant to a settlement agreement (including a plea agreement, deferred prosecution agreement, or non-prosecution agreement), to be used to make a payment in support of a campaign for election for the office of Senator or Representative in, or Delegate or Resident
Commissioner to, the Congress.

In his short remarks, Davis explained that his concern was about the idea of having tax dollar supported campaign financing subsidies, along with other attempts to control elections by federal interventions. In his own words:

In October, the majority jammed through H.R. 4617, the SHIELD Act, an attempt to federally hijack campaign finance law in this country. In June, the majority jammed through H.R. 2722, the SAFE Act, an attempt to federally hijack election infrastructure in this country. And in February, the majority jammed through H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a piece of legislation that, as introduced, would fund all of our campaigns with tax dollars from hardworking Americans.

Catchy titles can't hide the facts, and the facts are that these four bills are bad partisan policy that would negatively affect the American people.

When the Democrats proposed public financing of campaigns in H.R. 1, I could hardly believe it. The 6-to-1 small-dollar campaign match program would create a mandatory donation from the American taxpayer to a political candidate.

For every $200 donated by hardworking Americans to any political campaign of all of us in this institution, the Federal Government, on the backs of the taxpayers, would give $1,200 to that same politician's campaign.

This program would do nothing but fill the swamp, and any Member who voted for it was voting to fill their own pockets and the pockets of political operatives nationwide.

At Rules Committee, though, this was changed. The shell game now includes a fund which is supposedly financed through fines and settlements. But we have now seen the CBO score, and this fund does not support itself.

So what happens when it fails? I will tell you. It will ultimately fall to the taxpayers in this country to support this Democratic policy.

So the issue is about public funds flowing to political campaigns. This is a pretty significant issue and the issue addressed by Davis' proposed amendment.[+]

As an earlier answer by @Machavity has explained in much detail, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is largely intact, except for the preclearance issue. As even a cursory analysis of the text of this bill H.R. 4 shows, it is mostly about this preclearance issue that was struck down by SCOTUS in Section 4 and left Section 5 unenforceable. For media soundbites and partisan propaganda people may claim that this is about voting rights, when in reality all of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are intact.

As a side note, the records show that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was supported by the vast majority of Republicans and more Democrats voted Nay than Republicans even in a Democrat controlled house, in fact only 6% of Republicans voting Nay vs. 26% of Democrats voting Nay. Just to remind that civil rights issues in America were first introduced by the Republicans, including Civil Rights Act bills prior to 1964 that all failed on Democrat opposition to any Civil Rights legislation. Evaluation of the Goldwater opposition of 1964 needs to follow the same rules and example I am exemplifying here: first to take into account the statements made by the people in question, and then only consider hypotheses contrary to their own statements, where the null-hypotheses ought to be the explanation given in the people's own statements.

Therefore, the conclusion must be that H.R. 4 was opposed by Republicans supporting Rodney Davis' (R-IL) opposition to the bill in its present form, primarily because of Republican's opposition to any attempts of creating a vehicle for campaign financing subsidies from public funds. Since Democratic party members were unwilling to allow Davis' proposed remedy, the Republicans (except one) voted Nay.

There are many additional facts one might ponder in this question. In no particular order:

1. The bill was presumably discussed in more detail in the committee session(s) previously and reached the plenary with most representatives wanting to get over it and therefore aligning with one leading colleague. To find more about the discussion we may go back to the committee meeting minutes, using the same methodology and resources I have exemplified above.

2. One may wonder what the rationale of the Democratic party opposition to Davis' proposed amendment were, a good question since you recall that the amendment had nothing to do with actual voting rights rules, not even with the preclearance issue which one might well oppose for being undue federal influence and being a rule that is not equal for all counties, being possibly very messy (which is why SCOTUS struck it down in the first place.) So one might assume that if the issue was indeed protecting voting rights, a compromise on Davis' amendment should have been possible. Why were the Democratic party representatives unwilling to entertain such compromise?

Again, the only reasonable way to try to find the answer to this question is to first receive the statement by the leader of the opposition to Davis' amendment in his own words. Ms Sewell of Alabama spoke for (less than) 5 minutes. In summary first, having read Sewell's statement several times, I cannot find an actual rationale why the prohibition of use of fines for public campaign financing is detrimental to voting rights, except perhaps for the beginning, which is:

Ms. SEWELL of Alabama. Mr. Speaker, I oppose this amendment because it is a mere distraction. It is an attempt to politicize the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by interjecting campaign finance and settlement terms into civil rights legislation.

If Republicans were really serious about voting rights--about voting rights--they would actually be willing to come to the table and talk about how we can fully restore section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Leave it up to our colleagues across the aisle to interject money and finance into civil rights law. What has been lost today in this debate is the very heart of this bill; it is the central meaning of the bill.

All we have is a very general accusation that a prohibition to use fines from the Voting Rights Act for campaign finance subsidies would be "an attempt to politicize the Voting Rights Act". I believe it is fair to say that when any representative accuses another of "politicizing" but then goes ahead and delivers no actual argument against the point made, instead meanders into invoking names of heroes and shouting "Shame on you!" there is at least a doubt left behind that such pathos might be uttered in an attempt to hide ulterior motives which may in its own right be called "political".

3. A third such "additional fact" in answering the question why Republicans might have voted on party line against the bill is to consider what sort of House votes on any resolution were achieved in the 116th Congress that are not on party line? I suspect the country, and hence the Congress, is so divided that there is simply no care for coming up with motions palatable to the other party's representatives.


I am making a good faith effort in trying a fair unbiased assessment of such a "Why" question by demonstrating a method of fact finding and interpretation. It is probably easy to guess what my own position on the matter is, so I do not claim that I am unbiased. What I do claim is that I am making an effort to base my answer in specific facts of record, and not innuendo, and I demonstrated my fact finding and interpretation methods on two opposing statements.

I promise I will edit my answer to account for any other records of statements made by Republicans which may shed additional or different light on the answer I found so far. Please bring such facts up in the comment and I will address them by editing my answer.

UPDATES: (Rather than including updates into my lengthy text above, I will for now add them at the end. A complete rewrite would include it where it belongs, but to be fair with people who might already have done the work of digesting my answer I put it here in the form of footnotes.

[+] I do not want to make it sound as if my conclusion should be so narrowly drawn as if the federal funding of campaigns would be the only issue predicating the overall Republican sentiment behind their rejection of the bill. There is more contained in Davis' rejection speech. Davis' had mentioned dissatisfaction about several related bills that he claims the Democratic Party representatives had "jammed though" previously, and those other concerns are about federal control of elections. This brings up two thoughts:

  1. Very likely (as mentioned as additional consideration point 3. above) theirs is a reaction to the sense of present House Majority just "jamming through" Bills without taking objections from the minority seriously. Obviously if railroading is your leadership style you will not get bi-partisan support. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy and works both ways: you assume bad faith (as the most popular answer to date here does), you think the minority has no valid concern to contribute, you relish in the fact that you have the majority, and therefore you won't need their support, you therefore have a good chance of not getting minority support.
  2. In this concern about "federal control" one might impute the phrase "states rights" into Davis' speech, or believe someone else aligned with him might have used it. This has come up in some of the other answers and comments. What I find surprising about this is why, if Republicans were focused so purely on garnering the upper hand in elections, why would they not make use of the current executive power to go along with the proposal and use similarly arbitrary ruling as the Holder DoJ (that lead to the SCOTUS strike-down)? Federal control goes both ways. There is a great interest in Federal control of voter fraud right now, and hence, if the Republicans were not sincere with the concern about "federal control", you would expect them to be vying for using that control.

The point is: to arrive at an unbiased answer we must base our answer on the words and actions of the subject of our investigation (rather than the re-framing of their opponents). But we should not need to use tunnel vision, sticking only to the most narrow answer. The Davis' amendment was probably a necessary condition to get some republicans to vote in favor of the bill, but we can't be sure that it would have been a sufficient condition to garner significantly more of their support. One may even claim that it is only a tactical proposal that was so squarely unpalatable to the majority, that it was designed to keep most in the minority to keep opposing. But if that should be our hypothesis in this case, it also would put in doubt the true motivations of the majority in proposing this bill and rejecting the amendment that seems to have so little to do with the purported subject of the bill. In that case, it might actually give weight to Davis' amendment as a genuine matter, not just a tactical one.

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    Welcome! Nice contribution for a new contributor.
    – Sjoerd
    Dec 14, 2019 at 1:18
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    Thanks for answering; that's a big improvement from your last one! I really appreciate you digging into the congressional record. I have to say that you do seem to be much more willing to speculate negatively about Sewell's motives than Davis', but this is an excellent contribution overall.
    – divibisan
    Dec 14, 2019 at 1:43
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    2 other comments: 1) you assert that "all of the provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are intact", but the preclearance requirement was at the core of the Act and is essential to protecting voting rights without having to pursue lengthy and expensive litigation each time rights are violated. 2) Yes, the VRA was opposed by the "Dixiecrats" and supported by many Republicans in 1965, but that was before the Southern realignment which saw those white southerners abandon the Democratic party. I can see why you mentioned it, but it's kind of a non-sequiter here
    – divibisan
    Dec 14, 2019 at 1:59
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    Also, I trimmed some of your speculation on Ms. Sewell's motives, since it struck me as overly partisan and unsupported by the evidence, in a way that would undermine your main point. Feel free to roll it back and make further edits, but I think the answer is stronger without that.
    – divibisan
    Dec 14, 2019 at 2:00

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