“If you have the best ideas, you have nothing to hide. Let the people vote.” These were the words of President Joseph R. Biden on March 26, 2021 in a statement about the attack on the voting rights in Georgia. Since the beginning of his presidential campaign, and now in his first term as President, Biden has come under intense pressure from organizations like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the NAACP, and Common Cause to fight hard to protect voting rights for all Americans. Biden has kept part of this campaign promise by touting S1: For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
The official summary of HR/S1 given by Congress is that the For the People Act “addresses voter access, election integrity and security, campaign finance, and ethics for the three branches of government.” More specifically, the bill expands voter registration by making automatic and same-day registration nationally available as well as expanding voter access through vote-by-mail and early voting. The bill requires states to establish independent redistricting commissions to carry out congressional redistricting. This would help to alleviate the partisanship and gerrymandering we see so often today. There is also a focus on election security by creating more support for state elections’ security, cybersecurity, and developing a national strategy to protect U.S. democratic institutions through the establishment of a National Commission to Protect United States Democratic Institutions. Further, the bill addresses campaign finance, including expanding the prohibition on campaign spending by foreign nationals, requiring additional disclosure of campaign-related fundraising and spending, requiring additional disclaimers regarding certain political advertising, and establishing an alternative campaign funding system for certain federal offices. The bill addresses ethics in the form of more extensive reporting of conflict of interests in the federal government, creating codes of conduct for Supreme Court Justices, and prohibiting Members of the House from serving on the board of a for-profit entity. There is also more accountability and transparency required in the Executive Branch–the President, the Vice President, and certain candidates for those offices must disclose 10 years of tax returns.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the late civil rights icon John Lewis, is similar to the For the People Act in many ways, but has more historical roots. This bill, introduced in the 116th Congress, would reinstall an original section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which helped to make sure that people of color, especially Black Americans, had equal voting rights, as well as access to the polls. The 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder created a considerable blow to voter equality, especially for minorities. As stated by the Human Rights Campaign:
“Among the invalidated provisions was an enforcement mechanism that prevented states from making changes to voting laws and practices if they have a history of voting discrimination, unless they clear those changes through federal officials. In Shelby, the Supreme Court ruled that the formula for deciding which states and localities have a history of voting discrimination (and were therefore required to pre-approve changes in voting laws and practices) was unconstitutional. This severely weakened the federal government’s oversight of discriminatory voting practices.”
With this key provision being invalidated, voting rights for people of color are at the most vulnerable yet. Unfortunately, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act has taken a much different path through Congress than the For the People Act. While the Act passed the House in the 116th Congress it failed in the Senate and has yet to be reintroduced into this new, 117th Congress.
Speaking at the memorial for the 100th anniversary since the Tulsa Greenwood Massacre, President Biden announced that Vice President Kamala Harris would take the lead on protecting voting rights and passing the For the People Act in the Senate. In what will be her first major individual assignment as Vice President, Kamala Harris’ first job is “going to take a hell of a lot of work” as President Biden put it. Indeed it will. Not only does the John Lewis Voting Rights Act have a grim future, but now the For the People Act does too, with crucial swing vote Senator Joe Manchin announcing he will not vote in support.
In an Op-Ed to the Charleston Gazette Mail, Manchin explains “voting and election reform that is done in a partisan manner will all but ensure partisan divisions continue to deepen.” While in strong support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act to be reintroduced, Manchin thinks slim, partisan victories in the Senate begs the question: “Do we really want to live in an America where one party can dictate and demand everything and anything it wants, whenever it wants?” Manchin further states that he is not in support of his other Democratic colleagues’ attempts at eliminating the filibuster and using Vice President Harris for the tie breaking vote. His reasoning for this was that “just four short years ago, in 2017 when Republicans held control of the White House and Congress, President Donald Trump was publicly urging Senate Republicans to eliminate the filibuster. Then, it was Senate Democrats who were proudly defending the filibuster. Thirty-three Senate Democrats penned a letter to Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warning of the perils of eliminating the filibuster.”
While the filibuster is another hot button issue, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has stated: “We will vote on voting rights legislation, bold legislation, S. 1, in the last week in June.” Schumer has also said that he is willing to negotiate with Senator Manchin in order to get full democratic support for S1, but that “Speaker Pelosi put out a letter to her colleagues just a couple hours ago that said S. 4 (the John Lewis Voting Rights Act), because of its constitutional difficulties and upcoming court cases will not even be ready. So we’re going to put S. 1 on the floor. As I said, we’re open to changes and modifications as long as it does the job.”
It seems like Democrats’ anxiety over passing some kind of sweeping voting rights package is not baseless; the Brennan Center for Justice reported 361 voter suppression bills being introduced just this year. The last time there was this many voter suppression bills introduced was in 2011, and the Brennan Center thinks this is no coincidence:
“The restrictive laws from 2011 were enacted after the 2010 elections brought a significant shift in political control over statehouses — and as the country confronted backlash to the election of its first Black president. Today’s attacks on the vote come from similar sources: the racist voter fraud allegations behind the Big Lie and a desire to prevent future elections from achieving the historic turnout seen in 2020.” (Brennan Center for Justice)
Most proposed bills in state legislatures try to limit voting by mail, make stricter rules for voter ID, and decrease the availability of voter registration options.
With a vote coming up in late June on the For the People Act, groups like the Brennan Center, NAACP, and Common Cause are confident that the only way to stop these new bills in state houses is to enact S1. Unfortunately it looks like Chuck Schumer, Kamala Harris, and the Democratic Party as a whole- have a long road ahead of them to get there.
AP Article voting rights: https://apnews.com/article/voting-rights-voting-government-and-politics-48c29c71f4b86983cac0f7ef57bc5359
Atlantic Article on how S1 is best chance to stop voter suppression: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/03/democrats-need-hr-1-and-new-vra-protect-voting-rights/618171/
NY Times Article on what S1 would do as a bill:
Washington Post Machin not supporting S1 article:
USA Today on Biden’s two voting laws he wants passed:
Manchin’s Op Ed: