This past weekend marked the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, when voting rights marchers were brutally assaulted by law enforcement officers while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Broadcast on national television, images of state troopers attacking peaceful demonstrators, including John Lewis, a civil rights icon who went on to become a long-serving Democratic congressman from Georgia, shifted public opinion and galvanized Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA).
This year's commemoration — the first since Lewis's death last year from cancer — took place as many state legislatures are ramping up an assault on voting rights.
The VRA was one of the landmark achievements of the civil rights movement. It dismantled legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote as guaranteed under the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Before its passage, Southern states forcefully barred Blacks from voting and prevented them from even registering. Black people faced poll taxes, literacy tests, and even physical violence by whites trying to keep them out of the voting booth.
The VRA built on the 15th Amendment that granted African Americans the right to vote by establishing a system requiring states with histories of voter discrimination to get federal preclearance before implementing new voting laws. By ending discriminatory policies, the VRA reshaped the South's electoral landscape. In the decades after the law's passage, Black voter registration in the South jumped from 31% to 73% and Black voter turnout soared.
In 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in the Shelby County v. Holder case out of Alabama struck down the VRA's formula for deciding which states were subject to preclearance, effectively ending preclearance requirements except for jurisdictions covered by a separate court order. This allowed Republican-controlled state legislatures to implement restrictive voter ID laws, shrink early voting periods, and eliminate some voting locations. In Shelby's wake, 11 of the 13 Southern states adopted restrictive voting measures.
But with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, many of those same states' election officials took steps to make voting easier, such as expanding early voting and voting by mail. That led to record-breaking turnout in many places that gave Democrats a competitive edge — and that spurred Republican lawmakers to try to restrict voting.
'Steal the right to vote'
So far this year, state legislators nationwide have introduced over four times the number of bills to curb voter access as compared to this time last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. In all, Republican lawmakers in 43 states have introduced at least 253 restrictive voting bills, including in the Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The proposals would implement stricter voter ID requirements, make voter registration more difficult, and allow aggressive voter roll purges.
Nearly half of the bills would place new restrictions on voting by mail, while others would limit early voting — policies that disproportionately affect Black voters. In last year's general election, nearly 70% of all ballots nationwide were cast prior to Election Day, with an estimated 108 million people voting by mail, by dropping off absentee ballots, or early in person.
Voting rights experts note that many of these GOP proposals resemble the practices that were used to prevent Black people from voting in the segregated South. "We know that the current slate of laws that are being prescribed across this country actually take us to what looks like post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era laws, and that's not hyperbolic," Georgia voting rights organizer Stacey Abrams said in a recent MSNBC interview.
In her state, where Democrats flipped two U.S. Senate seats in January following years of grassroots organizing that led to dramatic gains in voter turnout, House Republicans passed House Bill 531 that would impose new restrictions on absentee voting and cut back on weekend early voting hours favored by larger counties, among other changes. The bill's sponsor, GOP Rep. Barry Fleming, chair of the House Special Committee on Election Integrity, said the measure "is designed to begin to bring back the confidence of our voters back into our election system."
The measure is now headed to the Georgia Senate, where Republicans recently voted to mandate new photo ID requirements, create a "voter fraud" hotline that voting rights advocates worry will lead to a rise in voter intimidation, and repeal no-excuse absentee voting, which 1.3 million of the state's voters used in November.
Democrats on the offensive
As Republican state lawmakers scramble to limit voting, congressional Democrats and voting rights advocates are going on the offensive to protect and expand access to the ballot box. Last week the U.S. House passed the For the People Act (H.R. 1), which Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, called "the most significant democracy reform legislation in at least half a century" and "the next great civil rights bill." It passed the chamber despite unanimous Republican opposition.
Sponsored by Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland, H.R. 1 includes provisions to strengthen the VRA, expand voting by mail, overhaul the campaign finance system by requiring full disclosure of donors and contributions, increase election security by modernizing state election systems, end gerrymandering, and make the democratic process more inclusive.
"We're not pursuing this reform against the backdrop of the status quo," Sarbanes told ABC News. "We're pursuing it against the prospect that the Republicans will take things in the wrong direction, and in a significant way."
Senate Democrats plan to move the bill forward, but their Republican colleagues have committed to fight with every tool available — including the filibuster, which was also used by Southern segregationists trying to block multiple civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s. Consequently, Democrats are now discussing filibuster reforms, with even conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia saying he's open to some changes.
Senate Democrats are also hoping to pass The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (S. 4263), which would counter the Shelby ruling by establishing a new formula the U.S. Department of Justice would use in determining which states need federal preclearance of election changes. The measure targets states with 15 or more voting rights violations during the past 25 years, and those with 10 or more violations if at least one was committed by the state itself. Under that formula, 11 states would be subject to preclearance, most of them still in the South: Alabama, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Introduced last July, the measure is currently awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Voting rights advocates have an ally in President Joe Biden, who has urged lawmakers to restore the VRA, and who on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday signed an executive order to make it easier to vote. The order directs federal agencies to expand access to voter registration and election information, calls on agency heads to draw up plans to give federal employees time off to vote or volunteer as nonpartisan poll workers, and mandates an overhaul of the Vote.gov website.
"The legacy of the march in Selma is that while nothing can stop a free people from exercising their most sacred power as citizens — there are those who will do everything they can to take that power away," Biden said. "We cannot let them succeed."