Congressional Democrats have been pushing for years to expand voting access to little success, and had hoped to get a package of legislation named for civil rights icon and US representative John Lewis done by this MLK Day.
Those hopes were dashed when senators moved a planned MLK Day vote back because of a massive snow storm in Washington and Hawaii senator Brian Schatz coming down with Covid.
The Senate is back in session on Tuesday, where Democrats hope to give their voting package another go — though their agenda is facing big hurdles from the right and left. So what are they trying to get done, and why do Republicans and some Democrats oppose their efforts to reform elections?
What’s in the voting package?
Last week, on a party-line vote, House Democrats passed a voting reform package that combined two previous efforts: The Freedom to Vote Act, and the John Lewis Voting Right Act. Taken together, they would mark the greatest change to elections in nearly a decade.
The package would set federal minimum requirements for early and mail-in votings, pre-empt GOP laws that restrict the franchise, allow for same-day voter registration, and make Election Day a national holiday. Most significantly, the proposal would reauthorise a portion of the existing 1965 Voting Rights which allows the federal government to scrutinise voting law changes in states with a history of racist disenfranchisement. That provision, known as judicial preclearance, was struck down by the US Supreme Court in 2013.
Who supports the bills?
Activists and nearly all Democratic legislators in Washington want the bills to pass.
On Tuesday, Martin Luther King III, the civil rights hero’s son, spoke in support of the push for reform, warning that without them, all around the country, Republicans are passing laws “with knife like precision” that “cut black and brown voters out of the process”.
The GOP has passed at least 34 laws in 19 states over the last year that make it harder to vote, particularly for people of colour, according to the Brennan Center think tank.
On Tuesday, House majority leader Nancy Pelosi said getting the voting rights bills through the Senate was vital, as “Nothing less is at stake than our democracy,” given Republican efforts at “suppressing the vote … nullifying the elections, it’s about just doing so many things to be obstacles to participation.”
Who opposes them?
Virtually all Republicans in Congress oppose the bills. They have framed the measures as a Democratic “power grab” and an undue increase in federal power, rather than a way to increase civic participation.
“It isn’t about ‘voting rights,’” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in December, “it’s a naked power grab.”
Representative Rodney Davis, a Republican from Illinois, said after the House version passed last week there are Republican states which already exceed their Democratic peers on questions like days of in-person voting.
“This is not about voting rights. This is about power and control,” Mr Davis said. Donald Trump, the party’s standard-bearer, has put things differently. He has consistently railed against expansions to voting access, stating plainly he’s worried more voting access would mean more votes for Democrats.
In March of 2020, in the early, chaotic days of the pandemic, Democrats sought to expand access to mail-in voting and increase funding to states as a way to keep voters safe from Covid. Mr Trump tore into the effort.
“The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again,” he said on Fox News at the time.
Since then, he has spent the months since the 2020 election spreading a false conspiracy that widespread election fraud in largely non-white Democratic cities cost him the election. This theory, which has never been proven with evidence in numerous lawsuits, in recounts, or anywhere else, has been taken up by GOP legislatures as well, who have launched highly partisan audits of vote totals in states like Arizona, which already certified their election results.
Could the Democrats pass the voting bills by eliminating the filibuster?
Many Democrats in Congress are pushing to either change or eliminate the filibuster, a parliamentary delay tactic in the Senate that means nearly all pieces of major legislation require 60 out of 100 votes to pass rather than the simple majority described in the constitution. The filibuster was frequently used by segregationists to block civil rights reforms.
Last week, representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York said the filibuster “is dripping in racist history."
"Ending the filibuster would be the easy way out,” Mr Manchin said last week. “I cannot support such a perilous course for the nation when elected leaders are sent to Washington to unite our country by putting politics and party aside.”
Ms Sinema added that she supports the voting rights bill being sent from the House, but opposes changing the filibuster, virtually the only way the reform package would pass in the current political climate.
“We need a sustained robust effort to defend American democracy, an effort on the part of Democrats, Republicans, independents and all Americans and communities across this country,” she said last week, adding, "And while I continue to support these bills, I will not support separate actions that worsen the underlying disease of division infecting our country."
Martin Luther King III condemned the senators, comparing them to the “white moderates” his father famously called the “stumbling block in the stride toward freedom” who are “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
“He was surrounded by people who told him to wait until a more convenient time and to use more agreeable methods,” Mr King said. “Fifty-nine years later, it’s the same old song and dance from Senators Manchin and Sinema.”
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