For the first time since its passage nearly 60 years ago, the US Senate has failed to restore the Voting Rights Act, potentially jeopardising critical protections against voter suppression and racial discrimination after a pair of US Supreme Court rulings undermined key elements of the landmark civil rights law.
Senate Republicans blocked the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – named in honour of the late civil rights leader and congressman – by invoking a filibuster for the fourth time this year to stop voting rights legislation from advancing to the floor. It marks the first time that the Voting Rights Act has not passed the Senate with bipartisan support.
Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Republicans’ obstruction a “low, low point in the history of this body.”
“It’s clear the modern Republican party has turned its back on protecting voting rights,” he said on 3 November.
A growing body of lawmakers and civil rights advocates have urged Democratic senators to dismantle procedural rules that threaten to undermine the right to vote, and have protested outside the White House demanding Joe Biden push his party to do more. Senate Democrats need the support of at least 10 Republicans to reach a 60-vote threshold to break the filibuster.
“We can’t keep bringing these bills to the floor for Republicans to block even beginning debate,” US Senator Patty Murray said on 3 November. “Whatever we’ve got to do to pass voting rights [legislation], even an exemption to the filibuster, I believe we should do it … We cannot let a Senate procedure stop us from protecting the right to vote.”
The Supreme Court in 2013 tossed out a crucial element of the Voting Rights Act that requires jurisdictions with histories of discrimination to have federal “preclearance” before proposed rule changes can go into effect. Earlier this year, it undermined a key section of the Voting Rights Act that prohibits racially discriminatory voting laws.
So far this year, GOP lawmakers in at least 19 states have enacted 33 restrictive voting laws, including attempts to consolidate electoral oversight in Republican-led legislatures to do what Donald Trump’s spurious attempt to overturn election results could not.
States have also started the once-a-decade process of redrawing political boundaries without federal guardrails against racial gerrymandering for the first time since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin and Joe Manchin – along with Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, the first GOP senator to join voting rights legislation this year – proposed the “compromise” John Lewis bill that “was crafted to encourage the support of both parties, and stays true to the same bipartisan blueprint followed by Congress in each of the [five] times it has previously enacted legislation” to restore the law,” according to statement from lawmakers.
The bill also includes the Native American Voting Rights Act, which aims to address voter suppression issues and other barriers to voting among Indigenous communities.
Despite his insistence that protecting and expanding the right to vote remains a “test of our time” and a definitive battle of his presidency, President Biden has not taken up the call among voting rights and civil groups groups and progressive advocates to push lawmakers for filibuster reform.
He suggested at a town hall that he is open to pressuring senators to amend filibuster rules, but that doing so would compromise passage of his domestic agenda tied up in negotiations among lawmakers.
A statement from the White House Office of Management and Budget announcing support for the bill on Wednesday stressed that “the sacred right to vote is under attack across the country.”
Meanwhile, a growing number of senators have openly called for changes to filibuster rules with voting rights on the line, and a coalition of civil rights groups have led demonstrations outside the White House demanding the president to do step in. Mr Schumer on Wednesday suggested Democratic senators will “go it alone” when he returns voting rights bills to the floor.
League of Women Voters CEO Virginia Kase Solomon, who was among at least 25 activists arrested outside the White House last month, told The Independent last week that “he can move the political will in most ways others can.”
Inaction at the federal level, combined with threats against election workers, fatigue among activists and a relentless push among GOP lawmakers to make it harder to vote, “It’s the perfect storm of what we don’t want to see happen,” she said.
Civil rights groups are holding demonstrations in Washington DC every Wednesday in November, anticipating more arrests during acts of civil disobedience.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Ms Solomon told The Independent. “Our coalition, our movement, is getting stronger. We’re not going to stop showing up. It’s not an option for us not to continue.”
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