Senate Democrats unveil new voting rights bill
A group of Senate Democrats unveiled new voting rights legislation on Tuesday in another attempt by the party to pass sweeping changes to federal elections in the face of a GOP filibuster.
The new bill, called the Freedom to Vote Act, was released by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and several co-sponsors, builds on a framework proposed earlier this year by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) as well as the sweeping For the People Act, which Senate Republicans blocked in June.
Though narrower than previous iterations, the 592 page bill would still enact major reforms to America’s voting systems, including efforts to make it easier to register to vote and set a 15-day minimum early voting window that states must meet. It would also make Election Day a federal holiday.
The legislation would also mandate that each state offer same-day voter registration at all polling locations by 2024, and calls for a broad range of cards and documents to qualify as proof of identification for in-person voting.
“Following the 2020 elections in which more Americans voted than ever before, we have seen unprecedented attacks on our democracy in states across the country,” Klobuchar, chairwoman of the Senate Rules Committee, said on Tuesday.
“These attacks demand an immediate federal response,” she added, noting that the bill “will set basic national standards to make sure all Americans can cast their ballots in the way that works best for them, regardless of what zip code they live in.”
The bill also seeks to target gerrymandering, barring states from drawing political boundaries with that has the “intent has the effect of materially favoring or disfavoring any political party.”
The bill comes after 18 different states this year passed 30 different laws that would make it more difficult to vote, according to an analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. It targets a number of practices enacted in Republican-led states.
Democrats have asserted the wave of voting restrictions is a result of former President Trump’s repeated claims that widespread voter fraud — which is exceedingly rare in American elections — cost him the November election.
Conversely, Republicans have remained steady in their support for the new state-level bills, arguing that the pieces of legislation bolster election integrity.
The new bill still faces an uphill battle in the Senate to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster, and includes efficiency measures that have been embraced by a number of states as well as some more controversial measures.
The bill would require states to provide automatic voter registration, which typically requires those visiting the Department of Motor Vehicles or another state agency to opt-out of registering to vote. At least 18 states already have such a program.
But the bill also would require states to allow those with felony convictions to vote as soon as they complete their prison terms.
States have a patchwork of limitations on when those with criminal records can vote, with many seeking to limit the franchise until the formerly incarcerated pay off any remaining fines and fees — keeping many away from the ballot box as interest makes it more difficult to pay off the balance.
Such a move could restore voting rights to an estimated 5.2 million of people, according to data from The Sentencing Project. That includes major swing states like Florida, where voters in 2018 approved a referendum to remove voting restrictions on those with a felony record, only for the Republican-led legislature to assert such a right could only be granted after fines and fees were paid.
The bill also goes after another area often targeted in recent bills passed by Republican state legislatures, requiring election officials to maintain ballot drop boxes for those who have requested absentee ballots — leaving the boxes accessible from the day they mail ballots through Election Day.
It also requires jurisdictions to have one drop box per every 15,000 votes that were cast in the most recent presidential election — a standard designed to target cities that limited the number of available drop boxes or made them difficult to access.
The bill also targets voter roll removal recently seen in states like Indiana and Ohio, limiting states’ ability to remove voters from the rolls due to inactivity or non-response to mailings.
Pressure on Democrats to protect voting rights has only grown in recent months, following a Supreme Court decision in June that upheld a pair of Arizona voting laws.
Advocates and liberal lawmakers decried the ruling, arguing that it hobbled Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Under the section, states and other jurisdictions are prohibited from implementing voting laws that discriminate against Americans on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group.
In addition to the revised bill that was introduced Tuesday, Democrats are also eyeing the Senate passage of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that was introduced and passed by the House in August before the chamber’s summer recess.
Bearing the name of the late Georgia congressman and voting rights champion John Lewis (D), the legislation would restore and update the federal preclearance process in the Voting Rights Act that was gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
Previously, the preclearance required states and localities with histories of racial discrimination to gain approval from the Justice Department before implementing any change to voting procedure.
The Lewis bill changes the formula to a more modern standard, now judging states and municipalities on their voting rights record of the past 25 years.
The legislation is co-sponsored by moderate Manchin, who, along with other moderate Democratic senators is against filibuster reform even for voting rights, as well as Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Raphael Warnock (Ga.).
Updated at 12:11 p.m.