Following a decision from the US Supreme Court that could have a ripple effect on voting rights as Republican lawmakers implement sweeping elections laws that make it harder to vote, President Joe Biden condemned the high court’s “severe damage” to the Voting Rights Act.
“In a span of just eight years, the court has now done severe damage to two of the most important provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a law that took years of struggle and strife to secure,” he said in a statement on 1 July.
In 2013, the court stripped out a provision prohibiting states with histories of discrimination at the polls from changing their elections laws without federal oversight.
On Thursday, the court upheld two Arizona laws that voting rights advocates argued have disproportionately hurt minority voters in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discriminatory laws.
“After all we have been through to deliver the promise of this nation to all Americans, we should be fully enforcing voting rights laws, not weakening them,” the president said.
Following the court’s decision, Democratic lawmakers and voting rights advocates urged Congress to revive proposals to expand voting access and restore the Voting Rights Act, now hobbled by two Supreme Court decisions despite the violent road to its passage during the civil rights movement after decades of Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement and racist violence.
Senate Republicans have already blocked the For The People Act, prompting demands from progressive lawmakers and some Senate Democrats to abolish filibuster rules that prevent critical items on the president’s agenda from passing through Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has also rejected a restoration of the Voting Rights Act, to be named after late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, as an “unnecessary” bill, after the landmark 1965 law was gutted by the high court in 2013 and undermined by its latest ruling.
“While this broad assault against voting rights is sadly not unprecedented, it is taking on new forms,” the president said. “It is no longer just about a fight over who gets to vote and making it easier for eligible voters to vote. It is about who gets to count the vote and whether your vote counts at all.”
At least 14 states have enacted 22 new laws that restrict access to the ballot, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, but a parallel effort from GOP lawmakers has seen more than 200 bills in 41 states that give themselves more authority over the electoral process, according to the States United Democracy Center.
At least 24 of those bills have been signed into law.
The president has previously said that legislation changing election oversight “borders on being immoral”.
Pressure has been growing against Democratic lawmakers opposed to amending current filibuster rules in the evenly divided Senate, where 60 votes are required to move a bulk of legislation forward. The White House has refused to wade into the debate.
The White House has defended Mr Biden’s response, dispatching Vice President Kamala Harris to meet with voting rights advocates and state lawmakers, while the US Department of Justice has pledged to challenge states with restrictive voting laws and boost staffing in its civil rights division.
But passing two critical pieces of voting rights legislation is largely unfeasible without abolishing the current filibuster.
“Our democracy depends on it,” said Pennsylvania’s Lt Gov John Fetterman, who is running for a Senate seat in 2022.
“Today’s decision undercuts the utility of a key provision of what’s left of the [Voting Rights Act],” said Mahogane Reed with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
“We will continue to use the tools available to protect the right to vote, including Section 2, but today underscores the significant and urgent need for Congress to pass robust and comprehensive federal voting rights legislation to protect the right to vote,” she said in a statement.
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