Voting rights in America: The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act failed to reform legislation

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Credit: Lexie Petrovic

A voting booth in Kalamazoo, Michigan set up in preparation for the 2020 election.

Chloe Rathbun, News Editor

The United States of America has functioned under basic principles of democracy since the conception of the Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal and are ensured “inherent and inalienable” rights: one of these rights being the crucial right to vote. 

Over the past few years, the right to vote without obstruction has been brought into question time and time again. 

According to Brennan Center for Justice, some states have recently implemented laws which hinder the people’s ability to vote in person through stricter ID requirements for voters, shortening the amount of time that polling places are open, and increasing the likelihood of purging voter names from voter registrations. 

Brennan Center for Justice reports that in total, “Lawmakers have introduced at least 389 restrictive bills in 48 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.” 

However, many bills were put forth in Congress to help counteract some of the state restrictions that have been whittling down voter rights throughout the years.

The House of Representatives passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in August of 2021 that has since been stalled at the Senate’s doors. The bill was created in response to the Supreme Court Case: Shelby County v. Holder. 

“Today, we call on Congress to get done what history will judge: Pass the Freedom to Vote Act.  Pass it now. Look, it’s also time to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act””

— President Joe Biden

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act seeks to reinstate a coverage formula, streamline a process to review voting changes, require voting transparency and focus on minority group disparities in voting. 

Many other bills are also being proposed such as the Senate bill and the Freedom to Vote Act, which aims to address “voter registration and voting access, election integrity and security, redistricting, and campaign finance” among other things.

Twenty-twenty was an unprecedented year for every aspect of society, with the unexpected global pandemic. Due to the pandemic, many voters were nervous about showing up for in-person voting in fear of catching COVID-19. According to Pew Research Center, in the presidential election, around 46% of voters ended up voting through absentee or mail-in ballots. 

After the defeat of former president Donald Trump, many members of the GOP claimed that these voting methods were unreliable. According to the Special Committee on Voter Participation organized by the New York Bar Association, the classic argument against absentee ballots is that they “can too easily result in citizens losing their votes due to mistakes, and that they can be too easily compromised by those seeking to literally stuff the ballot box.” 

Official recounts were called in states like Georgia or Wisconsin, two notorious swing states, in the days and weeks after the election. As reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer, other swing states such as Pennsylvania are still launching investigations into the election. 

In the transitional months between 2020 and 2021, many voters believed that the outcome of the presidential election had been altered in some way. People took to the internet, tweeting out phrases like “stop the steal,” referring to the “stolen” presidential election. Even former president Donald Trump made claims of voter fraud to the public, through the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. He also filed 63 lawsuits challenging the outcome of the election. 

In a letter to the Senate on January 3, 2022, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York proposed a package combining these two bills in an attempt to address some of the effects of the January 6 insurrection of 2020. 

On January 11, President Joe Biden formally and publicly endorsed Schumer’s package in a speech made in Atlanta, Georgia, a place nicknamed by the media as “the belly of the beast” when it comes to voting rights.

“Today, we call on Congress to get done what history will judge: Pass the Freedom to Vote Act.  Pass it now,” Biden said to the cameras while standing outside of Atlanta University. “Look, it’s also time to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” said Biden. 

The President went on to highlight his frustrations with devout political loyalty, specifically with Senate Republicans. 

“Not a single Republican has displayed the courage to stand up to a defeated president to protect America’s right to vote. Not one,” Biden said. 

The main issue that Democrats face in passing this voting rights package is something called the filibuster. 

In the Senate, there are 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats, and 2 Independents. The vice president acts as a tiebreaker so Democrats technically have the majority of votes right now. 

But the Senate has a rule called the filibuster. This rule allows either one of the parties to delay voting on a bill or prolong discussion surrounding it. Senate Republicans have enacted this rule and delayed the vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. 

“This body operates every day, every hour, by consent. And destroying the filibuster would drain comity and consent from this body to a degree that would be unparalleled in living memory””

— Mitch McConnell

“This body operates every day, every hour, by consent. And destroying the filibuster would drain comity and consent from this body to a degree that would be unparalleled in living memory,” said Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell in a speech regarding the Democrat’s attempts to get rid of the filibuster. 

However, the filibuster can be broken with a 60 majority vote out of the 100 senators, a type of agreement that is not often seen in the politically polarized Senate. 

Many prominent political leaders have begun to speak out against the filibuster, especially in relation to voting rights. 

“To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights,” said Biden. 

Biden said this in support of Schumer, who has been working towards filibuster reforms since the beginning of the new year. However, not everyone in the Democratic party agrees with the reforms.

Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sienma of Arizona have been outspoken about not supporting the changes. 

Without unanimous support from the Democrats, the likelihood that Biden and Schumer could alter the Senate’s rules regarding a 60 person vote is low. 

Beginning on January 18, the Senate entered it’s legislative session with the topic of voting rights at the top of the list. By January 19th, Senate Republicans blocked the bill package yet again. Schumer attempted to bring forth a vote on the filibuster, but two opposing Democrats, Manchin and Sienma, voted against the rule change.