Voting rights hit wall in Congress amid GOP overhauls

Efforts to strengthen voting rights in Congress are facing major stumbling blocks as GOP state legislatures propose new restrictions around the country.   

With lawmakers at a stalemate over a sweeping bill to overhaul elections, known as the For the People Act, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is urging his party to focus more narrowly on strengthening the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

But several Republicans are balking at supporting even the pared-down legislation and are dismissing Democrats’ alarm bells about the state-level actions as political. 

“I believe it’s unconstitutional. And it represents an effort to try to do through the backdoor what they’re doing to through the front door through S. 1 and H.R. 1,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) told The Hill about the bill championed by Democrats. 

That bill — known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named after the late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — would restore parts of the 1965 law that were gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision that argued the formula for determining if state and local governments needed to get pre-clearance from the Department of Justice before making voting and elections changes was outdated.   

It would attempt to revive that formula in a way that they hope could survive scrutiny from a high court that has shifted further to the right since Shelby County v. Holder.  

The Voting Rights Act has gotten bipartisan support in the past. When Congress approved a 25-year extension of the law in 2006, it passed the Senate in a 98-0 vote.  

But Republicans are showing little appetite for new restrictions that they believe would negatively impact their own states. To pass most legislation under the current rules, Democrats need the support of at least 10 GOP senators.  

“In South Carolina I’m not very interested in that,” said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.). “I think the court got it right. … This is just an effort to make everything about race. There’s no problem to fix in South Carolina. This a manufactured problem making every Republican a racist.” 

Graham added that he was willing to talk to Manchin and that there was “maybe” something they could do on voting, but he didn’t offer an example of what that might be. 

Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership, said that “some” Republicans might be able to support a Voting Rights Act reauthorization but that it would depend on how state and localities qualified for the Justice Department oversight. 

“I think the one thing we would want to look at would be … how would you get into a situation where you would have to have pre-clearance,” he said. 

The GOP pushback comes as former President Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” appear to have placed deeply rooted skepticism about the legitimacy of elections in a significant swath of Republican voters.  

Six in 10 Republicans believe Trump’s false claim that the election was “stolen” from him, according to a Reuters-Ipsos poll released last month. And a CBS News poll released over the weekend found that 67 percent of Republicans said that Biden wasn’t the legitimate winner of the 2020 election.  

Even as election experts and former Trump officials have dismissed claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, GOP-controlled legislatures across the country are proposing and passing new restrictions on access to the ballot. Nearly half of Republican voters told CBS News that they thought the party’s strategy should focus on changing voting rules. 

State legislators have introduced 361 bills across 47 states that would restrict access to voting, according to a Brennan Center analysis. And a Washington Post analysis from earlier this year found that the changes could amount to the biggest shift in access to the ballot since Reconstruction, placing limits on the ability to vote for tens of millions of Americans.  

Graham, speaking to reporters in South Carolina on Monday, said that instead of litigating the 2020 election, Republicans should be focused on the 2022 midterm elections and “reforms” to voting laws.  

“I think what we need to do is reform election systems. … So I think it’s smart to reform our laws to make sure you are who you are,” he said. 

Democrats have pointed to the state-level action as a reason why Congress needs to act to expand access to the ballot. The House initially passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act during the previous Congress. Supporters have predicted it’s unlikely to pass that chamber until September.  

Democrats are also pushing a much broader For the People Act, a sweeping overhaul of federal elections. The bill aims to expand ballot access while also overhauling campaign finance rules, changing the makeup of the Federal Election Commission, imposing new ethics rules for public officials and establishing new requirements on congressional redistricting.

But how far to go doesn’t unify Democrats on Capitol Hill.  

Senate Democrats convened during a closed-door caucus meeting late last week, with a source familiar with the meeting saying that senators discussed “the state of voting rights on their states” and why the For the People Act “was necessary to undo new Republican suppression laws in their states.”  

“We have to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But that alone will not solve the problem,” said Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). “The house of democracy as a result of these voter suppression bills all across the country is on fire right now.”  

But Manchin has balked at supporting that bill, instead arguing that his party should focus on voting rights.  

“I really truly believe with all my heart and soul that you have to do something in a bipartisan way on voting. Everyone should be protected and have their voting ability, you know, the accessibility, the security of it, and the fairness of it. So that one is one that I think we could do in the 50 states and all the territories,” Manchin said.  

Manchin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) sent a letter to leadership on Monday urging them to take up a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act that could garner bipartisan support. If Democrats wanted to go it alone on voting rights or broader election reforms, they would need to nix the legislative filibuster — something they don’t currently have the votes to do. 

Moving it through committee, which Manchin and Murkowski are requesting, would also give Republicans the opportunity to make changes before a bill is brought to the House or Senate floor. 

“Inaction is not an option. Congress must come together — just as we have done time and again — to reaffirm our longstanding bipartisan commitment to free, accessible, and secure elections for all,” they wrote. “We can do this. We must do this.”

Tags Donald Trump Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Lewis Lindsey Graham Lisa Murkowski Raphael Warnock Roy Blunt
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