UPDATE: On November 3, Senate Republicans voted to block debate on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and prevent the bill from receiving a word vote.
With the addition of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) as co-sponsors, a Senate majority now supports the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Likewise, a majority supported and voted for the Free Voting Law, which would set national standards for voting, redistribution and campaign finance.
These bills are extraordinarily important. They are essential to defend our democracy against the assaults it faces – essential to ensure free and fair elections, essential to ensure that we do not stifle our emerging multiracial democracy.
The choice before the Senate is therefore quite brutal: right to vote or obstruction.
Murkowski’s support is greatly appreciated. She previously supported the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. But the central fact is that these essential pieces of legislation have encountered a brick wall of partisan obstruction from the Republican minority in the Senate. This minority will not even allow the vote.
This partisan division has not always been the norm. The last time the 1965 Voting Rights Act was considered for renewal by the Senate, in 2006, it was passed by 98-0.
There are ways to get these bills through to a final vote without giving up filibustering, ways that preserve cherished (albeit somewhat illusory) values of debate and conciliation in the Senate. Systematic obstruction in this case does not facilitate compromise or conciliation. It allows a minority to block the necessary legislation. The Senate has found many ways to make it easier to pass vital laws despite Senate rules. It’s such a time, and the stakes are so high.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was perhaps the most effective civil rights law in American history. It changed the South and the country. By 2012, black voter turnout had matched or surpassed white voter turnout in states like Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina. Everyone, everyone, agreed that the Voting Rights Act worked.
In 2013, however, the Supreme Court triggered the collapse of that consensus. In Shelby County v. Holder, five judges ruled that the voting rights law was obsolete and gutted its protections. The four dissenting judges predicted that the ruling would allow the return of discriminatory election laws.
The dissidents were right. This year alone, 19 states passed dozens of laws making voting more difficult. Many of these states would have been required to seek federal authorization had the voting rights law been upheld.
These restrictive new laws have had a disproportionate impact on voters of color. The steady gains in black vote rates have been reversed. In most states where black voter turnout had increased before Shelby County, turnout rates for white voters still far exceed rates for black voters. It is difficult to imagine more powerful empirical evidence that the original guarantees of the voting rights law are still needed.
The Senate will vote tomorrow on advancing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. We expect him to secure a majority – a majority that represents a major step towards the long-standing broad public consensus that the right to vote and equality under the law are sacred in the United States. This majority must, one way or another, vote on this most crucial issue.