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The Fight For Voting Rights, Part 3: The Obstacles And The Solutions

Earlier this month, the United States hosted a virtual international Summit for Democracy. The proceedings brought together leaders from around the world to discuss challenges to democracy that have arisen on virtually every continent. The irony of the U.S. hosting such a summit while its own democracy is at threat was not lost on the host country. Vice President Kamala Harris directly addressed American challenges to democracy in her speech at the summit.

“The anti-voter laws that many states have passed are part of an intentional effort to exclude Americans from participating in our democracy,” Vice President Harris declared. She added that “we know that the right to vote cannot be taken for granted,” and urged the U.S. Congress to pass two proposed bills that would protect voting rights.

The vice president’s words echoed those of a number of other political leaders and activists who have recognized the challenges facing voting rights in America and have promoted ways to safeguard the right to vote for all Americans. In this, the finale of a three-part series on the fight for voting rights, we examine the proposed solutions to the attack against voting rights that have been proposed.

A multitude of voter suppression tactics requires a multitude of solutions

The attack against voting rights has been multipronged, happening at both the state and federal level and involving all three branches of government. As Blavity previously reported, the direct assaults against voting have happened in states such as Georgia and Texas, where Republican governors and GOP-dominated state legislatures have implemented restrictions on early and mail-in voting, partisan redistricting plans, strict ID requirements, partisan control over voting procedures, criminal penalties for incorrect voting and other measures. These laws are targeted, sometimes explicitly, at Democratic populations, especially Black and Latino communities.

At the federal level, the crisis has roots in all three branches of government: judiciary, legislative and executive. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This change allowed states that had previously been under federal oversight to implement the types of anti-voter legislation that we’ve seen spreading across the country, especially after Democrats’ surprising performance in the 2020 election cycle.  Meanwhile, former President Donald Trump has consistently supported the attack on democracy. When he was in office, he actively tried to disenfranchise voters in largely Black communities in order to attempt to rig his own re-election, and he continues to spread the lie of a “stolen” election that is used to justify these new voting restrictions. Also, Republicans’ use of the filibuster in the U.S. Senate has prevented Congress from passing new voting protections.

Just as the problem has been multifaceted, the solutions to the voting rights crisis must also be multipronged and comprehensive. As the Supreme Court created the circumstances for this current round of voter suppression, the Court will likely determine, in the short run at least, the boundaries for such anti-voting laws. As Blavity previously reported, the United States Department of Justice has recently filed two lawsuits against Texas, one for its restrictive voting rules and one for its plan to redistrict the state in a way that dilutes the voting power of Black and Latino communities and enhances representation for majority white Republican areas. The DOJ has similarly filed a suit against Georgia’s voting rules, accusing the state of racial discrimination. The Supreme Court has grown even more conservative since the 2013 ruling that opened the door for these states’ voting laws, so it is unclear whether or not the Court will ultimately strike down the restrictive legislation.

Two bills aim to protect voting for all Americans

The primary focus in the voting rights fight has been the U.S. Congress, where two pieces of voting rights legislation are currently being considered: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. These two proposed laws have different areas of focus, but they both seek to ensure that as many people as possible have as many opportunities as possible to cast their votes.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named after the iconic civil rights leader and Congressman who died last year, would essentially restore the provision of preclearance to the Voting Rights Act that was struck down by the Supreme Court. The Court’s 2013 ruling held that the formula used by the Voting Rights Act to determine which states needed federal approval to change their voting laws was outdated. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would implement a new formula, allowing the federal government to again supervise electoral changes and prevent states from discriminating against Black and other minority voters.

While the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is aimed at preventing new voting restriction from being put into place, the Freedom to Vote Act would enact specific voting opportunities across the country. This proposed law would set national standards for things like mail-in voting and early voting, generally aimed at expanding voting access and voting opportunities. It also has provisions to tackle partisan gerrymandering, which has been used mostly by Republicans in recent years to redraw districts to their advantage, as well as changes in the way political campaigns are financed. The bill is a somewhat limited version of the For the People Act, also known as HR1, which passed in the House but was defeated in the Senate earlier this year.

In short, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act can be considered as a way for Congress to defend voting rights from attacks, while the Freedom to Vote Act can be thought of as Congress going on the offense to establish that right in a consistent way across the country. Both proposed laws have the full support of all 50 Democratic Senators; one Republican Senator, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, also supports the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

However, in order to pass either law, the Senate must change its rules regarding the filibuster, a procedural quirk that allows a minority of Senators to prevent a bill from being given a vote. Currently, 60 Senators must approve to end the debate on a bill so that a vote can be conducted on whether or not to pass it. Though both parties have used the filibuster to block various bills, especially in recent years, the filibuster has historically been used to block legislation that would guarantee voting and other rights for Black Americans, such is the case now.

The 50 Democratic Senators in Congress could change the filibuster rule, but two conservative Democrats – Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – have so far refused to repeal or alter the filibuster, although they back both voting rights bills. Their colleagues, as well as voting rights advocates, continue to pressure and negotiate with Manchin and Sinema to bypass the filibuster for the two bills.

This stance of putting procedure ahead of people’s rights has not been convincing to many who see the filibuster as a political relic that must be changed in order to protect a basic American right. Earlier this month, Blavity spoke to Stacey Abrams, voting advocate and candidate for Governor of Georgia, about her new children’s book. As a pioneer in the current fight for voting rights, we asked her about the current state of the struggle, and she was very clear about next steps. “What has to happen next is we have to reform the Senate so that it operates to protect its institutional integrity. If the Senate can’t protect democracy, who can? If our Congress can’t protect our governmental obligations, who should? And if Washington D.C. refuses to act, who will?”

For many people, that who is President Joe Biden. Although the current president has forcefully spoken against GOP efforts to undermine voting rights, many of President Biden’s supporters have grown frustrated that he has not done enough to pressure Congress, and Senators Manchin and Sinema in particular, to pass new protections. At the same time, those who operate in politics also realize that even the president has limited power on Capitol Hill. When Blavity spoke to Texas Rep. Jasmine Crockett, she was hesitant to badmouth the president, assuming he was working to push forward voting rights. “I try not to bash the president in any way because one thing I’ve learned in being in politics,” she explained, “is that there’s a lot that’s always going on behind the scenes that the public isn’t necessarily aware of.” Though not singling out President Biden or Senators Manchin and Sinema, voting rights advocate Cliff Albright explained to Blavity in August that “calling out the people who are on your team is sometimes difficult, but in the spirit of love and power and accountability, we’ve got to do it.”

The current battles against voter suppression point toward a longer war for voting rights

Even if the Supreme Court strikes down the most racially discriminatory voting regulations and Congress passes one or both voter protection bills currently up for debate, winning these battles is unlikely to end the war on voting rights. In the long run, protecting voting rights may also mean getting out the vote, particularly on the Democratic side. This is not to say that the Democratic Party is inherently more noble than the Republicans. As political scientist Lincoln Mitchell noted in an article published by the Guardian, “voter suppression has a long history in the United States that is not located in one party, but it’s located in one ideology, and that ideology is white supremacy.” Over the last 40 years, however, Mitchell notes that it has been the Republican Party that has focused on suppressing votes.

As long as the GOP uses voter suppression as a key strategy for gaining and maintaining power, preventing Republican control of federal and state governments is key to defending the right to vote. The 2022 midterm elections will be crucial to this power struggle. Important races next year include the entire House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, including Rev. Warnock’s seat in Georgia, and governor races in 38 states, including Florida, Georgia and Texas. The winners of these races will, in turn, have significant say in determining the voting rules going into the presidential election in 2024.

While electing more Democrats – or, more precisely, electing less Republicans – may be a key long-term strategy for promoting voting, it can’t be a substitute for establishing protections now. When the White House suggested earlier this year that Democrats could simply out-organize voter suppression and gerrymandering, many Democrats were understandably outraged. “A functioning democracy cannot continually ask people to out-organize voter suppression,” wrote Andi Pringle in an op-ed for Blavity earlier this year. When Blavity asked Texas Rep. Jasmine Crockett for her opinion on advice to out-organize voter suppression, her response was blunt: “I think that that’s crap.” Rep. Crockett elaborated on her reaction in a way that pointedly frames why the current voting rights struggle is so important. “Everyone wants to put the onus on the voters,” she said. “The onus is continuously on organizers. There should not be an onus when it comes to a fundamental right.” As we enter into 2022, the political events of this next year, both in Washington and around the country, may very well determine whether or not that fundamental right continues to operate for all Americans.

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