Democrats Are Running Out of Time to Pass Voting Rights Legislation

Racial justice leaders are warning Democrats against leaving Senate this year without passing two landmark voting rights bills, as new restrictions on voting take effect in states across the country.

Lately all eyes are on Texas, where a lawsuit filed this week by the Justice Department claims new electoral maps drawn up and passed into law by Republicans aggressively dilute the voting power of communities of color. Advocates say the decennial redrawing of electoral maps in Texas and other states where lawmakers designed extreme gerrymanders highlights the urgency behind the voting rights legislation languishing in the Senate.

The coalition of 200 pro-democracy organizations recently urged Democrats to postpone the winter recess until the voting rights bills pass the Senate, where Republicans have blocked votes on the legislation multiple times thanks to current filibuster rules. A handful of conservative Democrats, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, remain opposed to filibuster reform, making it impossible to pass most legislation without support from at least 10 Republicans.

In a letter to Senate Democrats, the coalition pointed to the 33 laws passed in 19 states in 2021 that restrict access to the ballot, with more likely to come next year. Republicans in Texas passed one of the most restrictive laws, which places onerous new requirements on voters with disabilities and has raised international fears of racist voter intimidation by empowering partisan poll watchers.

“At the same time, state lawmakers across the country are currently gerrymandering legislative maps to choose which voters they represent, instead of the other way around,” the groups wrote in reference to the current redistricting cycle.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have focused on other priorities, including a bloated defense budget, critical government funding, and $2.1 trillion in social and climate spending that President Joe Biden is pushing to pass before the holidays. The Senate is tentatively scheduled to adjourn on December 13 and return in January, but lawmakers can extend the current session if they choose.

Polls suggest that many Republican voters continue to believe former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election, and GOP operatives claim they are winning the debate over voting as the year comes to an end.

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party and a leader of the Movement for Black Lives, said lawmakers cannot simply blame the filibuster for their inaction on voting rights. The Senate decides its own filibuster rules, and Senate Republicans changed the rules just a few years ago to ram through Supreme Court nominees.

If Democrats could rally behind Biden’s American Rescue Plan despite unanimous Republican opposition earlier this year, Mitchell said, then they can also rally to protect democracy before the 2022 midterm elections.

“Where there is political will, they can figure out the way,” Mitchell said in an interview.

Momentum behind the voting rights bills has faded since Congress convened in January, when Trump was fighting to overturn the election he lost in court, and throngs of his supporters attacked Congress in an attempt to overthrow the results. A massive turnout in Georgia driven by Black grassroots activists helped Democrats win the White House and a slim majority in the Senate, leaving the party with a mandate to support the rights of voters that remains unfulfilled, according to Mitchell.

“Some Democrats have argued that what working people and Black people and other people of color who are going to face the brunt of this … need to do is out-organize voter suppression, and I think that is outrageous,” Mitchell said.

Since January, 25 states expanded access to the ballot while the two federal voting rights bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — made their way through Congress before hitting the GOP blockade in the Senate. At the same time, Republicans in control of state legislatures passed sweeping voting restrictions and moved to consolidate partisan control of election administration in the name of “election integrity,” fueled by Trump’s debunked claims of voter fraud.

Experts say both Democrats and Republicans are attempting to maximize their political power through gerrymandering, but Republicans control the redistricting process in more states as they seek to regain control of Congress. In many cases, communities of color “are emerging as principal targets” of “especially brazen” redistricting plans, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The pair of federal voting rights bills are designed to counter such partisan efforts to swing elections by establishing federal standards for voting, redistricting and campaign finance while restoring and strengthening the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Republicans say both bills would result in federal overreach into elections, which are administered by state and local governments. However, federal oversight of elections to prevent racial discrimination existed under the Voting Rights Act for nearly half a century, until the oversight provisions were severely eroded by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Consider Texas, a state with a long history of racist voter suppression. In every redistricting cycle since the law was passed, courts found that at least one of the state’s electoral maps violated the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution, according to the Justice Department. The department’s lawsuit against the latest statewide electoral maps in Texas claims this longstanding tradition of racial gerrymandering continues today.

For example, people of color make up 95 percent of the population growth in Texas that has earned the state two more seats in the House, but the two new congressional districts created by Republicans in Austin and Houston are majority-white.

Due to its racist history, Texas and other southern states were required under the Voting Rights Act to submit any changes made to voting and elections to review by the federal government, until the 2013 landmark ruling by an increasingly conservative Supreme Court gutted the “pre-clearance” clause of the Voting Rights Act. Subsequent Supreme Court rulings have further eroded the Voting Rights Act.

Had preclearance been in effect, Texas would have submitted its redistricting plans to federal review, and the maps that are now accused of diluting the electoral power of non-white voters may not have quickly become law. Instead, the Justice Department is now seeking to enforce the Voting Rights Act in court after many of the law’s strongest protections against racial discrimination have been dismantled.

“While we are grateful for the involvement of the federal government, what we need to stop the five-decade cycle of having to take legal action every ten years is for Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act,” said Anthony Gutierrez, director of the democracy reform group Common Cause Texas, in a statement.

Under the original interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression laws in Georgia, Texas and Florida would also have faced federal scrutiny before taking effect this year. But in the absence of preclearance, voting rights attorneys are battling the states in court over laws that are already signed by Republican governors.

“Preclearance made it manageable to prevent these things from happening in the first place,” Mitchell said.

Together, the two voting rights bills in the hands of Senate Democrats would restore preclearance under the Voting Rights Act while updating the formula for determining which states must comply due to voter discrimination in the past, as the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling that gutted preclearance encouraged Congress to do.

Mitchell said that many of the conditions that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 still exist today as politicians continue shaping elections around their “racial political interests.” Without federal protections and oversight, Mitchell said, voting rights attorneys and Democrats in the Justice Department will be playing a game of whack-a-mole, with state politicians continually attempting to make it harder to vote or redraw district lines to maximize their party’s chance of winning, often at the expense of marginalized voters.

The question now is whether Democrats will find the political will to respond to activists’ demands with a voting rights overhaul before the end of the year.

“What we thought would happen, did happen … and the end result has been less accountability, less access to the franchise, and less power for communities that have historically been disempowered,” Mitchell said.