As the House returns from recess this week, Democrats will make their latest push for a major upgrade to voting rights protections nationally.
The long-awaited John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was introduced by Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama last week, and House Democratic leaders say a vote on the bill is imminent.
Voting rights advocates believe the VRAA would provide critical protections for minority voters at a time when many states are enacting new limits on voting access. But like the For the People Act, it's unclear how the VRAA will overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate.
What would the Voting Rights Advancement Act do?
Named after the late civil rights leader and lawmaker John Lewis, the VRAA would restore and strengthen provisions of the original 1965 Voting Rights Act. Primarily, it would reinstate preclearance, or the requirement that certain jurisdictions get advance approval of their election laws from the Justice Department.
Initially, preclearance prevented states (or portions of states) with histories of racial discrimination from enacting additional laws that suppressed the rights of nonwhite voters. But in 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the constraint, finding that, while previously appropriate, it was no longer necessary and placed an unconstitutional burden on governments.
The VRAA would use a new formula to determine the states and localities that require federal oversight. Only places that meet a high threshold of infractions — 10 violations, if at least one is statewide, or 15 total over the last 25 years — would be subject to preclearance.
House Democrats passed a version of this bill in 2019, but it was later blocked by Senate Republicans. In this second attempt, Democrats added a provision addressing a Supreme Court decision from earlier this summer. In Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the court's conservative majority ruling made it harder to challenge election laws for being potentially discriminatory against minority voters. The VRAA would amend the Voting Rights Act to eliminate this higher standard for voter discrimination challenges.
Voting rights advocates see the VRAA as a critical tool for protecting minority communities not only from restrictive election laws, but also from partisan map manipulations. Most of the country is at a high risk of gerrymandering as politicians control the redistricting process in 39 states.
How is this bill different from the For the People Act?
Democrats and voting rights advocates say the VRAA is not a replacement for the For the People Act. Instead, they say, the two bills would work in tandem.
While the VRAA would prevent discriminatory voting laws from being enacted in the future, the For the People Act would establish nationwide standards for voting and election policies.
The For the People Act would mandate automatic voter registration, two weeks of early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, among other voting expansions. It would also eliminate partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to use independent commissions to draw election maps. And the bill would curb the influence of wealthy special interests by creating a small-dollar public financing system for federal elections and bolstering transparency around political spending.
What's the likelihood the VRAA will become law?
Similar to the For the People Act, the VRAA will face steep opposition in the Senate once it passes through the House. Only one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, has signaled support for the legislation, meaning it likely won't receive the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.
In June, Republican Senators blocked a motion to begin debate on the For the People Act, stalling its progress. Democrats promised to make another push in September, but there is no clear path forward for either bill unless the filibuster is reformed or eliminated.
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Originally published by The 19th
ATLANTA — Senate Democrats, with their options limited in Washington, were in Atlanta on Monday to hold a rare field hearing they hope will draw public attention to restrictive voting bills proposed or enacted by Republican state legislatures.
Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic head of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees federal elections along with the chamber's day-to-day procedures, said the panel decided to convene its first field hearing in more than 20 years in Georgia because its legislature passed an “egregious" restrictive voting law earlier this year.
“We cannot keep our heads in the ground, you've got to go out there and see exactly what's happening," Klobuchar told The 19th ahead of the hearing.
“There's been over 400 bills introduced, 28 have passed and been signed into law, and one of them is right here in Georgia and it's probably the most egregious example," she added.
Georgia's Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill in April that is expected to make it considerably more difficult for some of the state's voters to cast ballots. The measure, which was quickly signed into law by Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, imposes additional identification requirements for absentee voters, limits the use of ballot drop boxes, curbs the authority of state and local election officials, and makes it a crime to offer voters food, or even water, while they are waiting in line.
The Republican effort followed record turnout in Georgia during the November 2020 elections, which resulted in Joe Biden's historic win in a state that had not backed a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992. Then, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won Senate seats in January runoff elections that handed their party control of the chamber. They are the first Democrats Georgia has elected to the Senate since 2000.
Warnock said at Monday's hearing that the record turnout “should have been celebrated ... instead, it was attacked by craven politicians more committed to the maintenance of their own power than they are to the strengthening and maintenance of our democracy."
Former President Donald Trump has blamed his loss on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud. In the days after the election, he criticized Georgia's election officials and pressured them to “find" the votes he needed to win the state. Kemp, who initially drew the former president's ire, told the New York Times earlier this year that Republicans “quickly began working" to “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat."
Klobuchar rejected Kemp's characterization of their effort. “They decided that instead of trying to fix their national policies or messages or candidates, that, after suffering a loss, they would respond by trying to disenfranchise people," she said in an interview.
Warnock is also the first Black senator to be elected in Georgia, where the population is roughly 58 percent white and 40 percent Black. High turnout among the state's Black voters was a driving force behind his and other Democratic wins. Witnesses at the hearing described how Georgia's law will disproportionately impact communities of color in the state, which already contended with longer wait times at the polls. Critics of restrictive voting measures in Georgia and elsewhere say they are designed that way, in a throwback to the Jim Crow-era laws that made it difficult for Black voters to cast ballots and supported racial segregation.
Georgia voter José Segarra, an Air Force veteran, said that when he went to cast his ballot during the state's early-voting period in October, it took two trips to the polls. He showed up on the first day with friends in their 70s, one of whom is a candidate for a knee replacement and another who has acute arthritis and uses a walker. They found a line snaking around their courthouse polling location. Unable to stand for what they anticipated would be an hours-long wait, they left. Serraga attempted again the next week with his wife and ended up waiting several hours.
“We were able to handle those three hours standing in line but we know that not everybody can," Serraga testified. “This is wrong, it should not take so long to vote."
Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, who is also on the rules panel, said he was “struck" by witness testimony that communities of color in Georgia had fewer voting locations and therefore faced longer lines. He said it sounded like a violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a key provision of the law that required areas with a history of discrimination to preclear changes to voting rules before implementation. The justices further weakened the statute in a ruling earlier this month. The erosion of the landmark civil rights statute has added to the urgency felt by Democrats and voting-rights advocates to counter the Republican push to pass voting restrictions.
Monday's field hearing came roughly a month after a sweeping bill to curtail the influence of money in politics and preserve voting access — known as H.R. 1, S. 1 or the For the People Act — failed to clear a procedural hurdle in the evenly split, 100-seat Senate, where nearly all legislation requires the support of 60 senators to proceed and Republicans are united in opposition.
The partisan battle over voting has also become enmeshed in another Democratic fight over whether they should change Senate rules to do away with the 60-vote filibuster threshold. The Democrats do not currently have enough support within their own caucus to change it.
Ahead of Monday's hearing, Klobuchar, along with Merkley and voting-access advocate Stacey Abrams, held a roundtable with four Georgia voters who had difficulty casting ballots in the 2020 general election or Senate runoffs, before the state's new restrictive law was in effect.
More from The 19th
One was Keli Benford, a 21-year Air Force veteran who waited nearly seven hours to cast her ballot on the first day of early voting in October. Benford, who is Black, said on the hot day it was a “blessing" when someone brought water to those in line, she added. Under Georgia's new law, the provision of water to a voter like Benford would be a criminal act.
Rules Committee Democrats Klobuchar, Merkley, Ossoff and Alex Padilla attended the hearing. None of the panel's Republicans were there. Warnock and Democratic state Rep. Billy Mitchell read opening statements. Sworn witnesses were Segarra, along with a Democratic state Sen. Sally Harrell and Helen Butler, a former county elections official. Klobuchar said Republicans declined the opportunity to provide witnesses to defend Georgia's law. Greater Georgia, a group founded by former Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost to Ossoff in the runoff, called the hearing “political theater."
“Over the past year Georgia has become ground zero for the sweeping voter suppression efforts we've seen gain momentum all across our country," Warnock said at the hearing.
“I want to be clear: Congress must take action on voting rights and we have no time to spare, there is nothing more important for us to do this Congress."
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Dzieduszycka-Suinat is the president of the U.S. Vote Foundation, a nonprofit that works to ensure that all citizens become voters.
Outrage over the new Georgia law is warranted. It's an overt suppression scheme — aimed at Black voters, specifically, and overall turnout, generally. But before we give much more oxygen to the measure's red herring, criminalizing distribution of food and water to people in long lines at the polls, let's highlight its dangerous core: allowing elected officials to manipulate election outcomes.
An authoritarian handbook couldn't have delivered a more effective strategy.
Under the law, ostensibly enacted in response to a "significant lack of confidence in Georgia election systems," the secretary of state is no longer chair of the State Election Board; that statewide elected official will be replaced by a "chairperson elected by the General Assembly." The board issues regulations governing elections, investigates fraud allegations and — significantly — it sets the rules on "what constitutes a vote and what will be counted as a vote."
Courtesy U.S. Vote Foundation
The Republican-majority legislature was no doubt inspired to write this section by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's failure to reconsider the 2020 presidential election's outcome — despite intense pressure to do so from a fellow Republican, the defeated President Donald Trump.
But there's more. Going forward, the state board may "suspend county or municipal superintendents" and appoint new people to temporarily act in their places.
Counties in Georgia, as in most states, hold great power; they register voters, maintain voter lists, conduct all of the ballot casting and then certify elections. Appoint someone who is too biased to take charge of a county election office, and suddenly the fox is guarding the hen house. Registration purges become heavy-handed, applications are put "on hold," recounts take place on shaky ground. And all these actions affect outcomes, potentially shifting the result of a close race.
Supporters of Georgia's new statute may say: "Look, don't worry, because the law restricts the state board from suspending any more than four county supervisors." But in the last election, seven of the 10 counties that swung the most heavily toward the Democrats in the entire country (compared with 2016) were in metro Atlanta. And President Biden carried five of them on his way to turning the state blue on the national map for the first time since 1992.
So, permission to control the elections in a majority of the state's pivotal counties means the GOP-dominated board will be close to controlling the whole election. The choice of four counties was no accident.
Indeed, no provision in the Georgia law looks to be more harmful to Black voters, and their historic 2020 turnout, or more fatal to democracy's survival.
Voter suppression in Georgia already relies on a bevy of tools to shape outcomes before they occur: strict ID laws, voter registration purges, shuttered polling places, partisan gerrymandering and unrestricted campaign contributions, to name only the most prominent.
If those tactics fail and the results in the ballot boxes still don't favor the suppressors — in Georgia or anywhere else — they have some back-end solutions, too: baseless lawsuits challenging the outcomes, calls from the powerful pressuring for "do-overs" and, as of Jan. 6, even a violent insurrection in the very seat of government.
After the last election, the evidence-free lawsuits didn't work, the calls for outcome flips went unheeded and the Capitol remained intact. So, when all else failed, it was time for the losers to start rewriting the rules.
This latest tactic is especially powerful. Whereas strict ID requirements — and other blatantly racist measures — often backfire by driving record numbers to the polls, some other laws force voters to question whether the process itself is legitimate and so whether they should bother participating.
Why show up when the system is stacked against you? When your ballot could get tossed on a political whim? Cultivating that skepticism and subsequent apathy is exactly what Georgian lawmakers had in mind. A citizen who feels powerless is a non-voter. And that's the most effective way to suppress the vote.
Tactics like this are used the world over. Like the Georgia lawmakers asserting "election integrity" concerns as their motive, military commanders in Myanmar asserted "voter fraud" as their justification in February for overturning an election and taking power.
To be sure, that democracy was relatively fresh and the people had already lived through military rule. But when there are breakdowns like the one in Georgia — when parts of the country become "laboratories of authoritarianism" rather than experiments in democracy — they potentially create a domino effect across the land.
Our centuries-old form of government will not necessarily die in one fell swoop. Its demise, like going broke, could happen slowly, slowly, then all at once.
But we can avoid a dangerous trajectory by passing a strong counter-measure: legislation to revive the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which for almost half a century helped protect Black voters and other minority citizens from discriminatory election laws. A bill in Congress would update the system, struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013 as unconstitutionally outdated, requiring places with discriminatory voting rules to get federal permission before altering any election regulations.
Enacting the measure would mean states and counties would be judged not by their historic sins but by their current actions and intentions. Some states have shown they need the help.
Federal legislative fixes are essential, but they won't solve the problem alone. Lawmakers must be reminded that tables turn, and manipulative rules like those now on the books in Georgia can come back to haunt them.
And when that happens, parties don't just implode. Democracy as a whole self-combusts.
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Almost eight years after the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Virginia has become the first Southern state to restore protections for minority voters.
The landmark bill, championed by Democrats in the General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday, aims to prevent the implementation of discriminatory voting standards.
The victory for voting rights advocates starkly contrasts the nationwide efforts by Republican lawmakers to roll back access to the ballot box, disproportionately impacting non-white, poor, elderly and disabled voters. So far this year more than 250 restrictive bills had been introduced in nearly every state.
In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that nine mostly Southern states with a history of racial discrimination no longer needed federal "preclearance" for laws that could affect minority voters. This led to lawmakers in those states passing a wave of voting restrictions, including voter ID requirements, voter roll purges and the closure of nearly 1,700 polling locations.
As one of the nine states, Virginia was known for its strict voting rules. But since Democrats took complete control of the state government after the 2019 elections, officials have made changes to bolster accessibility and expand the franchise to voters with past felony convictions.
The old federal preclearance process required states to get federal approval for changes to voting rules. Virginia's voting rights measure requires local election officials to get public feedback or permission from the state's attorney general (currently Democrat Mark Herring) before changing any rules. Virginians or the attorney general would be able to sue if they believed such changes discriminate against voters based on their race, color or membership in a language minority group. Proceeds from potential litigation will go toward voter education funds.
Under the new voting rights act, local election officials will be required to provide voting materials in multiple languages if their jurisdiction has a substantial population of people whose primary language is not English. The measure will also prohibit at-large municipal elections if they are found to dilute the voting power of racial minorities.
"At a time when voting rights are under attack across our country, Virginia is expanding access to the ballot box, not restricting it," Northam said in a statement. "With the Voting Rights Act of Virginia, our Commonwealth is creating a model for how states can provide comprehensive voter protections that strengthen democracy and the integrity of our elections."
Both chambers of the General Assembly both passed the bill along party lines last month. Republicans opposed the legislation because they said the potential litigation of election changes would be costly and the extra workload would be burdensome for local election officials.
But Democratic proponents of the bill say the protections it provides are needed now more than ever, as the country sees another wave of restrictive bills in the wake of the 2020 election.
"Virginia is standing strong against a coordinated and intentional effort to restrict voting rights across the nation," said state Del. Marcia "Cia" Price, one of the lead sponsors of the bill. "These targeted restrictions are designed to disenfranchise people of color, working Americans, and non-native English speakers. With this bill, our Commonwealth is taking the opposite approach and we are making a bold statement against voter suppression. We are upholding the dignity, voice and vote of all Virginians."
In announcing his approval of the legislation, Northam urged Congress to follow Virginia's example.
There have been recent efforts at the federal level to restore the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act that was struck down almost a decade ago. But new legislation — named after the late Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a prominent voting and civil rights leader — has not yet been introduced in this Congress. And if it is, the bill would stand little chance of passing through the 50-50 Senate with the filibuster intact.
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