Pass a Voting Rights Bill Now

Across the country, the effort to restrict the vote continues as a wave of bills moving through state legislatures becomes law.

In mid-July, at least 18 states had enacted election laws that would discourage voting access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan policy group affiliated with the New York University School of Law. 25 states have enacted 54 new voting laws that expand access in some way, according to the Brennan Center. Another 61 bills with policies deemed restrictive are still being considered by 18 legislatures.

The proposals passed in the 18 states by GOP lawmakers appear to serve no purpose but to make voting onerous enough that it disenfranchises affected voters. The attack on voting rights was facilitated by the 2013 US Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder. The court ruled 5-4 to effectively gut Section 5, the main enforcement mechanism, of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law required states with a history of discriminatory voting practices to clear any changes in election rules and procedures with the US Justice Department.

It has been eight years since the Supreme Court handed down Shelby v. Holder: one of the most disastrous and dangerous decisions for our American Democracy in recent memory. That day, a partisan Court gutted the protections of the Voting Rights Act and unleashed a brazen campaign of voter suppression that has only accelerated in recent years: in the first five months of this year alone, nearly 400 voter restriction bills have been introduced across 48 states. This voter suppression campaign, deepened by vicious gerrymandering and a torrent of secret special interest money, cannot go unanswered.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) announced that Republicans plan to invoke a process that could allow them to bypass the governor’s veto and pass a package of “half a dozen” election-related bills. Under the state constitution, a relatively small group of voters can propose legislation through a petition and then this legislation can be enacted by the state legislature. Using this process, the GOP-controlled legislature could enact this package by a simple majority vote in both houses, and Michigan’s Governor Whitmer would be powerless to veto it — although Democrats could potentially force a voter referendum on the GOP package.

A wide range of proposals were created to make it harder to vote, including limiting the use of drop boxes to collect absentee ballots, imposing stricter ID requirements on voters, empowering partisan election observers, and requiring a supermajority of county election boards to agree to certify election results.

The stakes in this fight are quite high, not just for state and local politics but for national politics as well. In several states Democratic Governors and legislatures are working to pass pro-voting legislation and expand access to the polls.

Last Thursday, a group of 150 organizations signed onto a letter spearheaded by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights urging the President to do more to ensure the passage of both bills, the For the People and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Acts.

Advocates have reportedly become frustrated with the White House, pointing to a perceived lack of involvement by Biden and his insistence on maintaining the “filibuster,” a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation in the Senate.

Arizona Democrat, Senator Kristin Sinema, has repeatedly voiced her opposition to ending the Senate’s legislative filibuster, which under the current makeup of the upper chamber of Congress all but guarantees key Democratic voting rights legislation will fail to pass. Voting Rights legislation fails and the filibuster continues to serve as a straw man keeping his knee on the neck of civil rights progress. We cannot allow an arcane Senate procedural rule to derail the voting rights efforts that a majority of Americans support.

The For the People Act would stop most of the worst laws being proposed and passed in states across the country right now to restrict voting. For instance, the bill would negate efforts to eliminate or roll back early voting by requiring all states to offer early voting for at least two weeks prior to an election, including on nights and weekends. It would negate new restrictions on mail voting by requiring every voter to have the option to vote by mail without an excuse, eliminating burdensome witness requirements and unfair ballot receipt deadlines, and mandating sufficient access to secure drop boxes. It would negate efforts to prohibit automatic and same-day voter registration, requiring all states to offer both. And it would blunt the harm from strict new voter identification requirements by giving all voters another way to affirm their identity and cast a ballot that counts.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act will restore preclearance, updating it to meet contemporary challenges, as the Supreme Court required in Shelby County. The bill will include a new geographic coverage formula under which states and localities with recent records of discrimination in voting would have their voting changes subject to preclearance for a period of 10 years. It also will apply preclearance to the adoption of certain practices that are widely known to discriminate against voters of color, even in jurisdictions that are not otherwise covered. Preclearance is a much more effective tool at combatting discrimination than costly and time-consuming after-the-fact litigation.

In short, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act each fill a distinct and critical role in protecting our democracy and ensuring elections are safe and fair. Every American deserves and should be able to rely on a baseline level of voting access, free from efforts to block their path to the voting booth or dilute or nullify their votes. Only passage of both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act can make this aspiration a reality.

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