Civil Rights

Sewell, Alabama’s Lone Congressional Democrat, Seeks to Strengthen Voting Rights, Defeat Party Infighting

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Selma, speaks at a press conference on Aug. 24 following House passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Source: Office of Rep. Terri Sewell

Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, the lone Democrat in Alabama’s seven-member congressional delegation, is seeking to grow the party with a two-pronged approach — countering Republican-backed voting restrictions while raising money to protect Democratic incumbents against challenges from the left.

First elected in 2011, Sewell has for four successive congresses introduced legislation to restore much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, legislation that mandated federal oversight of election laws in areas with a history of racial discrimination. That historic legislation was largely struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. The court’s ruling that the law’s requirements were outdated  led to state legislatures issuing a ream of voting restrictions in the wake of that decision.

This year, Sewell again introduced the bill, House Resolution 4, newly named the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in honor of the Alabama-born Georgia congressman and civil rights icon who died last year.

“To me, the need for H.R. 4 is apparent,” she told Birmingham Watch. “Just this year, over 400 restrictive laws have already been introduced in state legislatures across this nation, and 18 states have already enacted at least 30 of those laws. And we’ve really seen a concerted and deliberate attack on the right of every American to vote, deliberate barriers to the ballot box and what amounts to be, I think, a concerted and coordinate attack on the right to vote, probably the biggest one in our generation.”

H.R. 4 passed the House on Aug. 24 on a strictly party-line vote, with Democrats for and Republicans against. Sewell’s Alabama colleagues opposed it, with Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, calling it “the socialist Democrats’ latest voter fraud enhancement act” and Rep. Barry Moore, R-Enterprise, calling it a “sinister scheme to federalize our elections.”

Sewell noted that Republicans previously supported reauthorizations of the original Voting Rights Act.

“Historically, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been reauthorized five times … the majority of the time under Republican presidents,” Sewell said. “The last time it was reauthorized for 25 years was in 2006 under George W. Bush. He and Laura Bush came to Selma, Alabama, with the Obamas, on the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery march because he was very proud that on his watch as president of the United States, the voting rights act was reauthorized. it’s only been in recent years that Republicans have really reversed course on their belief in the strength of the voting rights act.”

Sewell, a Selma native, said she thinks H.R. 4 would pass if the bill got a vote in the Senate, but getting that vote means reforming or abolishing the filibuster.

“When you consider the fact that you only need to have 51 votes to appoint someone to the Supreme Court and have a life appointment to the Supreme Court, at the very least this filibuster seems an antiquated procedural device that’s really outlived its time,” she said. “If there’s any reason we should reform it, it should be for a bill such as H.R. 4, which goes to the very heart of our citizenship.”

The Supreme Court left the door open for Congress to pass new requirements for pre-clearance of any voting changes, and Sewell says H.R. 4 was crafted with that in mind.

“We’ve done everything we can to make this narrowly tailored. The court has clearly said that the remedy, which is pre-clearance, should be preserved for the most egregious state actors, and we must look to recent discriminatory actions by states, not what happened in states like Alabama in the 1940s, ’50s and 1960s, but rather a recent history of voter discrimination,” Sewell said.

To that end, HR4 would look for discriminatory actions from 1996 on.

“I think that shows a recent history and is narrowly tailored to get at the most egregious actors,” she said. … “I think federal oversight is needed when state legislatures go out of their way to impose unreasonable barriers and consistent discriminatory barriers for certain sectors of the population, and that’s when Congress can and should act. We’re solidly on constitutional grounds here.”

Protecting Team Blue

As much as she’s concerned about voting rights attacks from the right, Sewell is also concerned about attacks from the left in Democratic primary elections. That has long been a concern for Republicans but Democrats have had some dramatic primaries as well, the most prominent example being Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who defeated a 10-term Democrat in 2018.

Sewell is one of three cofounders of a new political action committee, Team Blue, aimed at providing funding for Democrats who face a primary challenge but may not be able to get help from Democratic Party PACs. It was launched in June by Sewell and Reps. Hakeem Jefferies of New York and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey.

“In recent years, we’ve seen primary challenges in our own Democratic party, having made defeating Republicans and their agenda all the more difficult. We’ve seen more progressive democrats, like the justice Democrats, really go after incumbent Democrats and at the end of the day, Team Blue is about protecting our majority in the House of Representatives and recognizing the way Democrats have been able to get this majority is by being a big tent,” she said.

Jeffries is chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the fifth-highest ranking Democrat in the House; Gottheimer is a Blue Dog and co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus; and Sewell is in the leadership of the New Democrat Coalition. In short, she said Jeffries is progressive, she’s a centrist and Gottheimer is conservative.

“The three of us got together because what we don’t want is for the infighting to be among Democrats,” she said. “We want to preserve our majority and in doing so make sure we’re protecting incumbents across the political spectrum.”