Democratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills

A polling station is seen at the Arlington Arts Center in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday, November 2, 2021. Virginia is voting for governor, state house and senate races.
Greg Nash

Frustration among Democrats and activists is growing over stagnating legislation on Capitol Hill meant to expand voting rights, an issue the party has said is a priority but has been unable to clinch a victory on in Congress.

The dissatisfaction is mushrooming as Democrats repeatedly try and fail to muscle two bills – the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act – through a 50-50 Senate after both pieces of legislation passed through the narrowly divided House. 

Republicans in Washington remain almost unanimously opposed to the voting rights expansions, leaving Democrats forced to confront their dwindling options and activists calling for bold reforms to Senate rules. 

“If the Senate can pass the two bills that it has before it, we could be at a turning point heading in a new direction on this issue. Until that happens, and if that doesn’t happen, then I think we have a lot to be concerned about right now,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, the acting director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center. “There have been a lot of states taking action to restrict access to voting in the last year.” 

Democrats have insisted that voting rights is a priority, casting expanded access to the ballot box as a necessity as Republicans, led by former President Trump, decry unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential race and look to implement restrictions in key swing states that President Biden flipped last year. 

Most recently, Senate Republicans on Nov. 3 blocked the chamber from debating the voting rights legislation named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon.

The bill would strengthen sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required Justice Department preclearance before some states could change voting laws and dropped a requirement for localities with growing minority populations to get preclearance for changes on offering food or drinks to people waiting in line to vote.

Democrats were able to win over Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), but no other Republicans voted to start debate, and Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster and move the bill forward, sparking another round of lamentations from lawmakers over the lack of progress on the issue.

“At virtually every turn, we have been met with resistance. What has happened to the Party of Lincoln? What has happened to that noble, noble view that voting rights is important on both sides of the aisle?” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the day after the vote. “The Senate is capable of far more than what we have seen from our Republican colleagues on voting rights.”

Besides the bill named after Lewis, Democrats have also been stymied in their attempts to proceed with debate on the Freedom to Vote Act. That legislation would, among other things, give all voters access to a minimum of 15 early voting days and same-day registration, make Election Day a federal holiday and expand the ability to vote by mail. 

Amid the gridlock in Washington, Democrats have seen states pass laws that they liken to voter suppression.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) signed into law legislation that prohibits round-the-clock polling stations, implements new restrictions on drive-thru voting and voting by mail, empowers partisan poll watchers who can observe an election, increases the requirements for identification voters must show when they cast a ballot and prevents elections officials from distributing vote-by-mail applications to voters who have not specifically requested them. 

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) also signed a law requiring a photo ID to vote by mail, limiting the time people have to request an absentee ballot and restricting where ballot drop boxes can be located.

And Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) also issued new restrictions, including curtailing voter access to absentee ballot drop boxes used by most Florida counties and mandating voters who want to cast absentee ballots to submit new requests every election cycle instead of every four years. 

All told, 19 states ratified 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote, according to the Brennan Center.

Lawmakers say those restrictions up the ante for Democrats to pass a federal bill.

“Mostly from a national perspective, I think that’s where we should have the most hope. I think to have the greatest impact is first to have a national standard when it comes to voting rights in this country. These proposals are kind of sitting on third base, if you will,” said state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-Texas), who fled to Washington earlier this year to deny the state legislature a quorum to pass Texas’s voter restrictions, a gambit that only temporarily worked. 

However, activists say the stumbling blocks to passing legislation in Congress are blocking off any path to passing laws at the federal level – absent a change in the Senate’s rules.

Progressive lawmakers and outside proponents of implementing sweeping elections reforms have made the filibuster public enemy No. 1, saying the 60-vote hurdle to pass most legislation in the Senate must go or at least be altered to include a carve out for certain issues like voting rights. 

“I think that they should get rid of the filibuster,” said Nsé Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project. “Stop playing, get rid of the filibuster, do whatever carve out you need to do to make you feel like you are playing well with others, but we need to stop lying and stop pretending like we are not seeing what is happening right now with American democracy.”

But changing the rules is no easy feat.

In a 50-50 Senate Democrats would need all 50 of their members to agree to a change, and Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have said they don’t support any adjustments.

Manchin, one of the most vocal opponents of altering the filibuster, has said he wants to move voting rights legislation forward in a bipartisan fashion. But activists are growing tired of that effort given the West Virginian’s inability to bring the requisite number of Republicans over to his side.

“It seems like there’s the desire to allow these attacks on our democracy to continue so that folks can continue to worship at the temple of bipartisanship,” Ufot said. “And unfortunately, I don’t think that that is an aim, a goal that’s worthy of our time, attention, frustration or resources in this moment. Bipartisanship should not come at the expense of being able to participate in our democracy.”

“I’m gonna let him do his thing,” she added of Manchin. “But at some point, we need to stop pretending and just acknowledge that someone farted in the room, and it stinks.”

Biden, for his part, has expressed openness to altering the filibuster, providing a jolt to progressives after saying in October he thinks “we’re going to have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster.” 

However, he has not pressured senators to get behind any specific changes, which, combined with his focus on passing sprawling infrastructure and social spending bills, have led activists to accuse Biden of not actively prioritizing voting rights in line with the way he speaks about the issue in public. 

“It’s definitely not a priority,” Cliff Albright, the co-founder and executive director of Black Voters Matter, told The Hill. “Anytime you say, ‘we’re going to get to this after A, B and C,’ then by definition this is not a priority.”

When asked for comment on the criticism, the White House did not directly respond but pointed The Hill to comments by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at a briefing earlier this month in which she maintained Biden “is committed to making sure that the fundamental right to vote … still exists.”

Tags Brian Kemp Chuck Schumer Donald Trump Greg Abbott Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Lewis Karine Jean-Pierre Kyrsten Sinema Lisa Murkowski Ron DeSantis
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