Bringing Clarity to Essential Voting Rights Bills

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2021 voting rights rally

By Jeff Milchen
December 7, 2021

It may seem like a distant memory, but it was just 2006 when the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to strengthen and extend the Voting Rights Act and President George W. Bush signed the bill into law. At the signing ceremony, Bush declared, “My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court.”

Just seven years later, the Supreme Court began its ongoing campaign of eroding voting rights by undermining the Voting Rights Act, led by a Chief Justice deeply rooted in voter suppression. By 2016, we witnessed the 2016 election of a President whose Administration and party embraced disenfranchisement as an electoral strategy.

Thankfully, renewed organizing to defend and advance voting rights has emerged to resist these attacks. But with so many voting rights bills discussed and altered throughout 2021, many people lack clarity on what the bills now active in Congress would do. That presents a big challenge for everyone seeking to engage people to speak out in favor of strengthening voting protections or to speak against the onslaught of voter suppression laws and anti-democratic redistricting schemes passing through state legislatures. 

The challenge was amplified when the “For the People Act,” which democracy advocates spent many months and countless hours promoting, was modified and rebranded as the Freedom to Vote Act. FTVA was introduced by Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), but blocked from a vote on the merits via filibuster on October 20.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Act (also blocked by filibuster on November 3) and Washington, D.C. Admission Act (passed the House, no action in the Senate) are the major bills accompanying the FTVA to correct many serious threats to democracy.

Here’s an overview to help clarify the roles of major bills, each of which plays an essential and complementary role. We hope this will be a useful reference to help you communicate your wishes effectively. 

Update, January 13: the House of Representatives just combined the FTVA and John Lewis Act into one bill: the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.

The most expansive of current bills, the FTVA aims to protect individual voting access, ensure our votes count equally, prevent outright subversion of election results, and shrink the power of money over elections. A few key provisions include:

  • Stop partisan gerrymandering by creating objective standards for redistricting (takes effect immediately to ensure fair 2022 elections)
  • Enable all eligible voters to register at the polls right up to Election Day
  • Establish 15 days of early voting, including at least two weekends
  • Bar partisan purges of voter rolls by creating fair rules
  • Automatic restoration of voting rights for people returning from prison
  • Protect and expand  access to voting by mail and drop boxes
  • Enacts disclosure requirements to reduce the corrupt power of untraced money
    (encompasses provisions previously proposed in the “DISCLOSE Act.”)
  • Mandates non-partisan election administration
  •  Ensure use of paper ballots that can be verified by voters and accurately re-counted

See the Brennan Center’s FTVA page for a more thorough bill analysis.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act blocked from debate and vote via Republican filibuster) would ensure changes to local or state election law are reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice before implementation. It would restore many rights that the U.S. Supreme Court effectively stripped away in its 2013 Shelby v Holder ruling, which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Court’s ruling came after Congress reauthorized and expanded the VRA with near unanimous support of Republicans in 2006, including President George W Bush. The John Lewis Act would restore the full protections of the VRA, including:

  • Enact protections for Indigenous voters previously proposed in the Native American Voting Rights Act
  • Protect election workers by establishing criminal penalties for people who threaten, harass or attack election workers or their workplace. Some elements were previously part of the Election Worker and Polling Place Protection Act.
  • Increase transparency by requiring advance public notice for voting changes
  • Create a new coverage formula that hinges on a finding of repeated voting rights violations in the preceding 25 years, measured on a rolling basis
  • Block voter suppression tactics historically used to discriminate against voters of color

The Washington, D.C. Admission Act (H.R. 51)
This bill would grant voting representation in Congress to the 700,000 people residing in the District of Columbia, who presently have none, and makes Washington D.C. the 51st state.

Other Bills
The three bills noted here do not address every important voting issue (reform of the Electoral Count Act also is needed), but incorporate many key provisions in other proposals, like the Accessible Voting Act of 2021 and bills cited above. Advocates for voting rights and fair elections overwhelmingly agree these bills include the most  urgent steps needed to prevent current attacks on our democracy from succeeding.

Overcoming
Of course, none of these bills will become law unless Democrats stop enabling anti-democratic Senators to block legislation via filibusters — a tool long used to deny equal rights to people of color and suppress their political power. The majority could merely prohibit Senators from invoking the filibuster to block voting rights advances — just as Republicans exempted judicial nominations in order to pack the U.S. Supreme Court with right-wing Justices when Sen. Mitch McConnell was the majority leader. Alternatively, Democrats could abolish the custom of enabling filibusters entirely. 

We ask you to take five minutes to convert the urgency of passing these bills to your Senators today, and have set up a hotline to help make it easy and enable us to quantify the impact UUs are making in defense of our democracy. Just click here to proceed and we’ll get you connected with your U.S. Senators immediately. (The call-in page does not reference the DC Admission Act in order to focus on the two bills we believe can pass pre-recess). Thank you!

Last updated 1.13.22 One month after we published, FiveThirtyEight provided this detailed breakdown of what remained and what changed as Congress moved from the “For the People Act” to the “Freedom to Vote Act.” now combined into the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.

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