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  • Writer's pictureBreanna Crossman

Democrats Fail to Pass Voting Rights Legislation

A Republican filibuster blocked the advancement of Democrats’ ambitious voting rights legislation in the Senate in January. (Obi Onyeader/Unsplash)

Historic voting and election reforms have been introduced in the Senate after the disputed results of the 2020 election.

Following the January 6 insurrection on the Capitol by supporters of 45th President Donald Trump, Democrats have strived to reform and expand voting rights legislation. In January, Democrats proposed the Freedom to Vote Act and The John R. Lewis act. Their proposals come as many Republican-led states are increasing voting restrictions in an effort to reduce fraud, an act some believe poses a danger to America’s democracy.

What About the Voting Rights Act?

In 1965, the passing of the Voting Rights Act was groundbreaking. It aimed to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment and end racist election practices in the Jim Crow South, which included grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests.

However, the act’s power has declined in recent decades, as the Shelby v. Holder case lifted the requirement for federal preclearance before states could introduce new voting laws in 2013. Additionally, in July of 2021, the high court ruled that the state of Arizona was permitted to bar anyone besides a family member from returning early ballots for a registered voter and discard any ballot submitted in the wrong county in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee.

Some Democrats believed these new policies were racially motivated, targeting minority groups to reduce their participation in democracy. Alongside the controversial 2020 election, this idea prompted Democrats to introduce new voting rights legislation.

Democrats’ Proposals

Democrats introduced the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act in January, a sweeping bill that addresses voter registration, redistricting, and election integrity. Named after the congressman and civil rights activist John R. Lewis, the bill has received widespread support among Democrats.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, also sought to establish Election Day as a federal holiday and outlined a national standard for mail voting and early voting. If instituted, the bill would place restrictions on removing election officials for partisan reasons and modernize voting registration.

Another part of Democrats’ voting legislation, the For the People Act, was passed in the House of Representatives, yet faced an uphill battle in the Senate.

The bills were backed by most Democrats, including New York Democrat and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. “Much like the violent insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol nearly one year ago, Republican officials in states across the country have seized on the former president’s ‘Big Lie’ about widespread voter fraud to enact anti-democratic legislation and seize control of typically non-partisan election administration functions,” Schumer wrote in January.

Other Democrats have expressed concern about Republican intervention with the integrity of elections following the widely disputed 2020 election. Following claims of miscounted ballots and fraud by former president Donald Trump and other Republicans, several investigations were launched to certify the election results.

The new bills also come as GOP-controlled states have introduced voting legislation that some Democrats argue is harmful to minority communities. Some, including President Joe Biden, have criticized the legislation as reinstating racist voting practices of the past in the South.

“In 2021, we saw a repeat of history ― a steady drip of old poison in new bottles. Whereas in a bygone era, discriminatory intent in voting restrictions was dressed up in ideals such as securing a more informed and invested electorate, the new justification is fighting imaginary voter fraud, a phantom conjured only to attack,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, Director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Senate Deliberation Results in Failure for Democrats

However, the voting rights bill underwent criticism by, who claimed that the bill is a federal overreach. Unanimous rejection of the For the People Act by Senate Republicans was cited early on as a major obstacle Democrats would face.

Progress for the Act was halted by a 48–52 vote against changing filibuster rules in early January, an action that prevented lawmakers from bringing back a filibuster for the Freedom to Vote Act. The procedural vote to begin debate on the Act also resulted in the bill’s stoppage, as the 49 in favor vote was too short of the 60 votes necessary for advancement.

Of those who voted against the bill, Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema were the only Democrats. Machin and Sinema, both centrists, have recently come under fire by fellow Democrats for withholding their votes. Manchin stated in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “I believe that partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy, and for that reason, I will vote against the For the People Act.”

Republicans remain staunchly against the bills, many holding the position that the legislation is merely an attempt for Democrats to grab onto power. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted against the bill in accordance with Senate Republicans, stated that the bill was “an excuse to try to break the senate. This is genuine radicalism…[they] want to make it easy to fundamentally change the country.”

The John R. Lewis Act also faced substantial pushback in the Senate. “The narrative of widespread voter suppression is nothing but a scare tactic designed to support a political outcome,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

The Senate voted against the Freedom to Vote Act and The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in December, halting Senate Democrats’ efforts to advance voting rights reform.

The Uncertain Future of Voting Rights

The failure of Democrats to expand voting rights legislation comes at a time of fear and uncertainty for American democracy. Increasingly loud calls for election security and transparency precede midterm elections in November as American faith in the government declines.

Yet many remain hopeful for the future of voting legislation in the country. President Joe Biden, a strong supporter of voting rights expansion, stated in January, “One thing’s for certain. Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try it a second time.”



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