On June 22, the voting rights bill For the People Act (S1) (also known as H.R.1), met a solid Republican wall of opposition in the Senate even though the bill passed in the House with bipartisan support in March. Republicans voted against starting debate on it.
After the bill failed to advance in the Senate, President Biden condemned the suppression of a bill to end voter suppression, stating that the Act defended “the rights of voters…and stood against the ongoing assault of voter suppression that represents a Jim Crow era in the 21st Century.”
Earlier in the month, voting rights advocates at a June 11 briefing hosted by Ethnic Media Services were optimistic about the prospects of legislation aimed at blocking voter suppression in many states.
Elizabeth Hira, Spitzer Fellow and Policy Counsel, Brennan Center’s Democracy Program described the election reform bill as “an opportunity to fundamentally transform American democracy by changing who gets a seat at the table.”
What’s at stake is reduced voting options at the local level that disenfranchise vulnerable populations.
In Texas for example, the Senate approved an election law – SB7 – that could make voting more difficult for people of color and people for whom English is a second language. Mimi Marziani, President of the Texas Civil Rights Project explained that SB7 prohibits local election officials distributing vote by mail applications. This would impact the right to vote for people with disabilities, college students or people who are incarcerated. Instead, the bill could empower partisan poll workers who are known for intimidating people of color and make it easier for politicians alleging fraud to have elections overturned with very limited proof.
“Invidious discrimination, often race-based is very much alive in American law,” added Hira, citing the example of voter ID laws in North Dakota which require proof of residential addresses. It’s a requirement that’s impossible for Native American communities to provide as the state does not assign them home addresses.
In California, CalMatters reports that schools do nothing or next to nothing to help eligible 18 year old students register to vote, because the state legislature has voted year after year to suspend funding for local initiatives. According to a USC study by the Center for Inclusive Democracy in February 2021, only 11% of 16- and 17-year-olds in California are preregistered to vote.
Both federal bills – For the People Act (S1), and the John L. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, under consideration in the US Senate, sought to protect the rights of voters by pushing back the ongoing assault of voter suppression.
The S1 “fundamentally asks the question, what would it look like to have an inclusive American democracy,” said Hira.
The For the People Act aims to recognize and rectify historical inequities in voting rights by expanding access to the ballot box, changing campaign finance laws, and making infrastructural changes.
S1 includes automatic voter registration and same day voter registration which will benefit communities of color and young people from one of the most demographically diverse generations in America today. It also includes online voter registration for ten states which don’t have operational systems, and supplies two weeks of early voting with hours before and after, to ensure that people get to cast their ballots – especially women and lower wage workers who do not have the flexibility to stand in line for hours at the polls on election day.
In order to reduce the influence of big money in politics, the bill would establish a baseline minimal standard for campaign finance reform. It restores the vote for about 4 million Americans who are out of jail or prison and living in their community. Other provisions include an increase in penalties for intimidation at the polls, as well as an endorsement for DC statehood and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Ensuring that people can elect leaders to represent them through fair redistricting is a fundamental tenet of S1. It bans partisan gerrymandering that lets politicians draw districts to choose their voters, and instead, opens the process to allow the public to choose their leaders. It also prohibits discriminatory voter purges and provides grants for election security and election administration so that states can get paper ballots and “voters can know their votes are cast and counted,” said Hira.
Fortifying our democracy by instituting anti-corruption measures and strengthening ethics rules for public servants is integral to the For The People Act, which provides a judicial code of ethics for the Supreme Court which is the only court in America that does not abide by one, and will require the President and Vice President to abide by conflict of interest laws and submit the last ten years of their taxes.
In conjunction with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the S1 advances the work of the Civil Rights movement to achieve racial justice, but it also involves intersectional equities – ensuring voting rights for women who change their names after marriage or divorce, and for transgender people without documents that match their gender identity.
After the bill failed to advance in the Senate, President Biden issued a statement that he would be ramping up efforts to overcome suppression of a bill to end voter suppression, declaring, “This fight is far from over—far from over.”
Meera Kymal is the Contributing Editor at India Currents.