Just the Facts: Recent Voting Rights Legislative Efforts

Just the Facts: Recent Voting Rights Legislative Failures, Perhaps a New Legislative Opportunity, and What We Can Learn from the Civil Rights Movement Following nationally televised footage of Bloody Sunday- a major turning point in the Civil Rights Movement when hundreds of protesters led by former Congressman John Lewis were assaulted and beaten by Alabama State Troopers- the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed both chambers of Congress and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Now fifty-six years later, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act has been proposed to restore parts of the original VotingRights Act nullified by theU.S. Supreme Court over time. However, unlike its predecessor which enjoyed bipartisan support, this Act has already been used as a political pawn by a seemingly intractable and uniquely divisiveCongress leaving many to doubt both its successful passage as well as the security of some of our most basic civil rights. Voter fraud allegations in the 2020 general election, which had the highest voter turnout rate of any election in the past century, have led to at least 19 states passing 33 pieces of legislation that restrict a person’s ability to cast a ballot. Some of the most restrictive laws that have been passed came from Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, and Texas. The American Civil Liberties Union has identified this sharp uptick in voter suppression efforts following the 2016 General Election and highlighted the need to fight and advocate for Americans’ right to vote including addressing issues of accessibility to ballots, voter registration restrictions, and availability of early voting opportunities. When an individual’s access to the ballot box is reduced or denied, the solution lies in policymaking that creates or improves a system of checks and balances that ensures that voters are protected both equally and equitably. This is where bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act come into play. Perhaps the most striking components of this legislation are the changes made to the coverage formula, which would apply to all U.S. States, and how the law directs courts to analyze current legislation to find repeated voting rights violations. Additionally, the Act addresses ways to review changes to current laws that determine rules around the use of Voter IDs and multilingual materials. Both legislative initiatives have historically been the most discriminatory. The Act also looks to increase transparency between Election Offices and voters by requiring reasonable notice when voting laws change, grants power to the Attorney General to require federal observers to be present where serious and credible discriminatory practices are present in voting, and ensures accessibility to polls and improves protections for Native American and Alaskan Native voters. The original version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives in August 2021 but has stalled in the evenly divided Senate. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced at the end of October that he would move to hold a vote on starting debate for the Act amid a successful bipartisan negotiation and increasing pressure from groups opposing new restrictive state voting laws. Amendments to the Act drafted by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Joe Manchin (D-WV) more clearly define factors that courts can use to evaluate new voting rights. However, even with these proposed bipartisan amendments, the Senate vote held on Wednesday, November 3rd to begin debate, failed mostly along party lines with the exception of Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. Republican Senators have now blocked a total of four bills in 2021 related to voting rights which forces Democrats and supporters of voting rights measures to ask, what is next? Many progressive senators and officials in the Biden administration are hoping that this most recent vote failure will help sway moderate Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Krysten Sinema (D-AZ) to support amending the Senate filibuster rules in order to pass important pieces of President Biden’s domestic agenda. But a more insightful question from the failed vote is, why has the formerly bipartisan issue of voting rights become a stalemate between the two parties? The Civil Rights Movement, the Bloody Sunday protest in Selma, and more recent movements for racial justice like the Black Lives Matter movement may provide us with some answers. The original Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, following years of protests around the country against Jim Crow laws in the South and widespread violence against Black Americans. The events of Bloody Sunday opened many people’s eyes to how horrific conditions in the United States were for Black Americans. This terrifying event galvanized the public and members of Congress to support the Civil Rights Movement and pass legislation like the Voting Rights Act. What is less discussed in tandem is the backlash to the expansion of Civil Rights and the success of other progressive ideals in the 1960s and 1970s that led to the creation of our current political parties. In fact, the modern socially conservative Republican party has its roots in the backlash to the Civil Rights Movement by white Americans who felt that they no longer identified with the Democratic Party-a party that had moved too far to the left and in so doing, left them behind. Ironically, we have not learned much from history and find ourselves in the midst of another backlash to racial justice policies, this time in response to movements like Black Lives Matter which have worked to educate and spread awareness around systemic racism. The plethora of restrictive voting laws proposed and passed in states throughout the country are emblematic of our nation’s current divisive and divided state. Politics is once again intervening in one of our fundamental rights as citizens-the right to vote. Voting is a fundamental right that all citizens possess and must therefore be guarded as much as any other constitutional right. With the inability of Congress to provide such protection, like in times before, this particular rightwill be left to the courts to decide.


Brooke Lehmann

Julian Brock and HannahByrum


*Note: This is a blog that I worked with students on late last year during the first debate regarding this Act. Some of the information is dated but the general principles and information regarding the Act itself remain relevant to the current debate regarding the bill.