Voting rights advocates fear John Lewis Voting Rights Act could fail in Senate

DELMARVA – Voting rights may be one of the more divisive issues in our nation, and now it’s at the forefront of political conversation once again. As the U.S House of Representatives passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, it’s now onto the Senate for a final vote. Voting rights advocates say they’re keeping a close eye on the outcome. “If we don’t have the right to vote, every other issue that we care about is impacted,” said Executive Director of the ACLU of Delaware Mike Brickner.

The act would allow the federal government to step in and approve any major changes to voting procedures in state and local elections. The provision has a specific focus on states that Capitol Hill have identified as having a history of being discriminatory towards minority voters. Political experts say sometimes those forms of discrimination can look like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “Today, the forms are more subtle, but they’re still there. It’s things like not having a day off to vote, or several forms of ID, or purging voting rolls really quickly,” said Delaware State University Professor of Political Science Dr. Samuel Hoff.

An Ominous Outlook

But the outlook for the act actually passing the Senate is dismal. The act received no Republican support in the House, and could even face a filibuster from Senate republicans. “In the Senate it looks like there’s only one Republican who has pre committed to a similar type of legislation, and that’s Lisa Markowski out of Alaska,” said Dr. Hoff.

There’s a couple of different things that Senate Democrats can do to try and push the act through. Dr. Hoff says they could try to break down the act into smaller pieces of legislation and try again next session if it fails in the Senate. Another option would be to take the issue to court. “The members who support that can initiate a lawsuit and take it back to the courts under certain conditions. The courts may or may not accept that case,” said Dr. Hoff.

The Long Road to Here

Dr. Hoff says the call for the act to pass stems from a long history of Supreme Court decisions. “Voting rights advocates believe this is necessary, particularly, with the conservative movement on the U.S. Supreme Court,” said Dr. Hoff. “The 1965 Voting Rights Act, up until 2013, helped to prevent at least 3,000 incidents of discriminatory voting procedures.”

Decades later, in 2013 The U.S. Supreme Court tackled Shelby County v. Holder. It was a landmark decision that weighed whether certain parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were constitutional. That includes the requirement for certain states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before making any major changes to voting laws or practices. It also challenged the formula used to figure out which jurisdictions are subject to preclearance due to a history of voter discrimination.

Ultimately, the Court ruled 5 to 4 that it was unconstitutional, barring those practices for the foreseeable future. “Essentially, what that case did was release the states from the federal government’s supervision of certain areas that had historically been discriminatory,” said Dr. Hoff.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2021. That was when the Court took on Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. The case dealt with two of Arizona’s election policies. One was the outlawing of ballot harvesting, and the other was out-of-precinct voting. The Court ruled in a 6 to 3 decision in July that neither of those election policies violated the Voting Rights Act, or had a racially discriminatory purpose. “That essentially makes it harder, even still, to initiate lawsuits to try to prevent discrimination,” said Dr. Hoff.

Dr. Hoff says the strict party line voting that happened in both of those cases paved the way for the current debate over the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act today. “The John Lewis Voting Rights Act deals specifically with the response to those two court decisions, and tries to reverse that momentum and bring back fairness in voting,” said Dr. Hoff. “This appears to now be a Democratic versus Republican issue. Although yesterday’s bill was passed 219 to 212, it was straight party lines.”

Waiting With Baited Breath

Back home on Delmarva, voters rights advocates say restrictive voting laws passed in other parts of the country should be watched carefully. That’s why they say they’re waiting with baited breath to see the outcome of the Senate’s vote. “Luckily, we have not seen any attempts here in Delaware. But, it’s important that we have strong federal protections in place because none of us can predict the future,” said Brickner.

The House passed an older version of the Voting Rights Act last year, following the death of John Lewis, but it ultimately failed. There’s no clear indication as to when exactly the Senate will take up this act for a vote. However, President Joe Biden has been urging them to act quickly.

Categories: Delaware, Local News, Maryland, National Politics, Virginia