Supreme Court decision amps up voting rights battle in Congress

A controversial 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court on Thursday upholding Republican-backed voting restrictions in Arizona has upped the ante for this year’s voting rights debate in Congress.

It also means that calls to reform the Senate’s rules will only continue to grow, despite recent declarations from Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) that they will not support eliminating or curtailing the filibuster.

Democratic strategists warn the high court’s decision in Brnovich v. DNC, which liberals believe has seriously undermined Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, opens the door for Republican-controlled state legislatures to get more aggressive in passing restrictions that they believe will have a disproportionate impact on minority voter turnout.

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who has worked for several presidential candidates, described the battle over voting rights as an “existential fight.”

“It should be of tremendous concern,” he said. “You have one political party which is hell-bent on depressing turnout. They’re backed up now by the Supreme Court of the country and the control of the Congress is very tight right now.”

“It’s not theoretical, it’s a real practical fight. It’s clear that they’re attempting to limit participation by people who don’t vote for them,” he said. “I think Democrats have to recognize it for what it is. It’s not as obvious as the Jim Crow laws and civil rights battles when African Americans were denied the right to vote but it’s moving aggressively in that direction.

“We have to fight on every front,” he added. “You have to fight in elections, you have to fight in courts, you have to fight in the court of public opinion. … This is an easy issue to slide under the rug and people would not be paying attention to it.”

Derrick Johnson, the president and CEO of the NAACP, called the court’s decision “yet another full-frontal attack on our democracy.”

“It sent a clear message: While states across the country continue to suppress the votes of Black and Brown people and let the power of big money rig our elections, they will get a free pass,” he said.

“Given today’s decision and the nearly 30 anti-voting bills that have become law nationwide, Congress must do its job and pass both the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” he said. “We will not sit idly by while corrupt politicians try to silence us. We will see you in the courts, in Congress and in the streets.”

This puts pressure on Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) to bring S. 1, the For the People Act, or key components of it, back to the Senate floor for a vote, even though Republicans blocked the legislation from being considered before the July 4 recess.

Schumer called Thursday “one of the darkest days in all of the Supreme Court’s history” and accused the court of “failing to properly respond to a wave of restrictive and discriminatory laws.”

“These decisions today only further underscore the need for Congress to act to preserve democracy,” he said, citing another 6-3 Supreme Court decision that struck down a California law requiring nonprofit groups to disclose their donors to state officials.

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), the lead sponsor of the For the People Act, called the court’s decision “outrageous” and said “this is exactly why we need federal protections to ensure every American has equal access to the ballot box.”

Merkley said before the Senate recess that he thinks S. 1 will come back to the Senate floor as a whole or in pieces for additional votes.

“I think there are going to be multiple additional battles,” he said, adding that legislation needs to be passed by the end of August to give state election officials enough time to implement reforms before the 2022 midterm election.

The court’s decision also ups the stakes for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which is expected to be introduced in both chambers this year. That legislation would update the formula that would determine which states have a recent record of discrimination when it comes to voting practices and require them to get preapproval from the Department of Justice before making changes to election law.

Progressive activists now expect that bill will include language responding directly to the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday, which upheld two Arizona voting restrictions that critics believe violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

But the legislation, which is likely to pass the House, faces an uphill path to getting 60 votes in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters “it’s unnecessary.”

“There’s no threat to the voting rights law. It’s against the law to discriminate in voting based on race already,” he argued.

Democratic aides and activists say the court’s decision puts new pressure on centrist Democrats to reconsider getting rid of the filibuster. They believe this is especially true for Sinema, whose constituents are impacted directly.

“It’s very clear that these attacks on voting rights are going to continue and that they are going to be supported by the ideological shift in the court,” said a Senate Democratic aide.

Speaking of Sinema’s continued opposition to filibuster reform, the aide said the court decision “should be wake-up call to her” and “should be effective in refocusing her attention.”

The aide argued there are reforms that could be undertaken to minimize Republican obstruction in the Senate without a fully repealing the minority party’s power to filibuster.

“For her own safety and security electorally it’s hard to imagine she’s going to have support” if she continues to oppose filibuster reform, the aide added.

A coalition of progressive groups last month announced the launch of a $1.5 million television ad campaign in Arizona targeting Sinema over her opposition to reforming the filibuster. The hard-hitting ads accused Sinema of “standing by” and “allowing Republican leaders to threaten our rights.”

Sinema’s staff has responded by noting she is an original co-sponsor and supporter of the For the People Act.

Jesselyn McCurdy, the interim executive vice president of government affairs at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the court’s decision will amp up the debate over voting rights in Congress.  

She said the decision “reaffirms the need for a bill like the For the People Act but also ultimately, once it’s introduced, for the Voting Rights Advancement Act,” using another name for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

McCurdy noted “it’s not unheard of to address Supreme Court decisions within legislation.”

She said the court has also put new pressure on Senate Democrats to examine the filibuster.

“Also, we need to think about the current Senate procedures around the filibuster and whether or not the democracy issues are an example of an instance when the filibuster needs to go,” she said. 

Tags Charles Schumer Congress Filibuster Jeff Merkley Joe Manchin John Lewis Kyrsten Sinema Mitch McConnell Supreme Court voting rights
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