Democracy advocates worry time is running out to pass voting rights bills
Last month Senate Republicans once again blocked House-approved voting rights legislation that would have restored the Voting Rights Act, which the Supreme Court gutted in its 2013 ruling in the Shelby County v. Holder case out of Alabama. It was the third major voting rights bill to be thwarted this year by the GOP's use of the filibuster, a Senate rule that effectively requires a 60-vote supermajority to advance legislation.
Though a recent poll found it has the support of 69% of voters, including half of Republicans, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — named for the civil rights icon and Georgia congressman who died last year — fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome Republican opposition. Only one Republican senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, supported the measure. The legislation would have countered the Shelby ruling by establishing a new formula the U.S. Department of Justice would use to determine which states need federal preclearance of election changes. A Republican filibuster has also blocked the Freedom to Vote Act, broad pro-democracy legislation that the same poll found has the support of 61% of voters.
"Defenders of democracy in America still have a slim window of opportunity to act," more than 150 top scholars of democracy said in a recent statement supporting the Freedom to Vote Act. "But time is ticking away, and midnight is approaching."
The threats to U.S. democracy are receiving global attention. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization headquartered in Sweden, recently released a report titled "The Global State of Democracy" that found the United States is "backsliding" when it comes to promoting political equality and cultivating democratic institutions.
"The United States, the bastion of global democracy, fell victim to authoritarian tendencies itself, and was knocked down a significant number of steps on the democratic scale," the report says.
It notes that "some states' voter registration and voting laws, either recently approved or currently under discussion, end up disproportionately affecting minorities in a negative way." This year alone, legislatures in 19 states have passed 33 laws that make it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. They include the Southern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. The new laws implement stricter voter ID requirements, make voter registration more difficult, and limit voting by mail.
In Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law legislation that prohibits 24-hour polling locations, adds new restrictions on drive-through and mail-in voting, expands the role of partisan poll watchers, increases voter identification requirements, and prevents election officials from supplying vote-by-mail applications to voters who have not explicitly requested them — policies that experts say disproportionately harm Black voters and communities of color. Fernand de Varennes, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on minority issues, recently denounced Texas's new restrictions.
"It is becoming unfortunately apparent that it is almost a tyranny of the majority where the minority right to vote is being denied in many areas," he said during a two-week visit to the U.S. in November.
Earlier this year in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed legislation requiring a photo ID to vote by mail, reducing the time people have to request an absentee ballot, and limiting where ballot drop boxes can be placed. And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) also implemented new voting restrictions, including limiting voter access to absentee ballot drop boxes and requiring voters who want to use absentee ballots to submit new applications every election cycle rather than every four years.
To counter these attacks on democracy, voting rights advocates are pressuring Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster. After a series of voting rights protests over the summer, demonstrations to demand federal voting protections have become more frequent. Last month, 200 people were arrested in a mass demonstration at the White House demanding an end to the filibuster and calling on the Biden administration and congressional leaders to make voting rights a top priority.
"We will continue to be in the streets fighting for our voting rights until President Biden and Senate Democrats take action. Instead of spending time and energy trying to end our movement, the White House should be using that energy to end the filibuster," said Cliff Albright, co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York called the most recent Republican filibuster a "low, low point in the history of this body." He also hinted that Democrats are considering options to alter the filibuster rule, noting that Democrats are prepared to move forward on voting rights "even if it means going at it alone."
But Schumer faces resistance within his own party from Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Manchin has said that he will not "vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster," while Sinema has argued that "if we eliminate the filibuster, we will lose much more than we gain." Their holdout status has resulted in them receiving a flood of money from conservative and corporate donors, leading to corruption concerns, as The Guardian reported this week.
For now, voting rights activists are keeping up the pressure on Democrats to act. "I think that they should get rid of the filibuster," Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, recently told The Hill. "Stop playing, get rid of the filibuster, do whatever carve out you need to do to make you feel like you are playing well with others, but we need to stop lying and stop pretending like we are not seeing what is happening right now with American democracy."
Benjamin Barber is the democracy program coordinator at the Institute for Southern Studies.