Democrats run out of time to pass voting rights law

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Racial justice leaders are warning Democrats against leaving the Senate this year without passing two landmark voting bills, as new restrictions on voting take effect in states across the country.

Lately, all eyes have been on Texas, where a lawsuit filed this week by the Department of Justice claims new electoral maps crafted and promulgated by Republicans are aggressively diluting the voting power of communities of color. Lawyers say the decade-long redrawing of electoral maps in Texas and other states where lawmakers have crafted extreme terms underscores the urgency of voting rights legislation languishing in the Senate.

The coalition of 200 pro-democracy organizations recently urged Democrats to postpone the winter recess until voting bills pass the Senate, where Republicans blocked votes on the legislation repeatedly thanks to the current rules of filibuster. A handful of conservative Democrats, including Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, remain opposed to filibuster reform, making it impossible to pass most laws without support of at least 10 Republicans.

In a letter to Senate Democrats, the coalition highlighted 33 laws passed in 19 states in 2021 that restrict access to the ballot, with more likely to come next year. Texas Republicans have passed one of the most restrictive laws, which places onerous new requirements on voters with disabilities and has sparked international fears of racist voter intimidation by empowering partisan poll observers.

“At the same time, state lawmakers across the country are currently gerrymanding legislative cards to choose the voters they represent, instead of the other way around,” the groups wrote in reference to the redistribution cycle. current.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have focused on other priorities, including an inflated defense budget, critical government funding, and $ 2.1 trillion in social and climate spending that President Joe Biden is pushing to pass ahead of the holidays. The Senate is expected to adjourn provisionally on December 13 and return in January, but lawmakers can extend the current session if they wish.

Polls suggest many Republican voters continue to believe former President Donald Trump’s lies about a stolen election, and GOP agents claim they are winning the voting debate at the end of the year .

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party and leader of the Movement for Black Lives, said lawmakers cannot simply blame filibuster for his inaction on voting rights. The Senate decides its own filibuster rules, and Senate Republicans changed the rules just a few years ago to vote Supreme Court candidates.

If Democrats could rally to Biden’s US bailout despite unanimous Republican opposition earlier this year, Mitchell said, then they could also rally to protect democracy ahead of the 2022 midterm election.

“Where there is political will, they can find the way,” Mitchell said in an interview.

The momentum behind the voting rights bills has waned since Congress was convened in January, when Trump fought to overturn the election he lost in court, and crowds of his supporters attacked Congress in an attempt to reverse the results. Massive participation in Georgia led by black grassroots activists helped Democrats win the White House and a slim Senate majority, leaving the party with a mandate to support voter rights that is still not respected, Mitchell says .

“Some Democrats have argued that what the workers, blacks and other people of color who are going to suffer the brunt of this … have to do is over-organize the voter suppression, and I think that’s outrageous.” Mitchell said.

Since January, 25 states have expanded access to the ballot as the two federal voting rights bills – the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – have made their way to Congress before striking the GOP blockade in the Senate. At the same time, Republicans controlling state legislatures adopted sweeping voting restrictions and decided to consolidate partisan control of the election administration in the name of “electoral integrity,” fueled by Trump’s debunked claims of electoral fraud.

Experts say Democrats and Republicans are trying to maximize their political power through gerrymandering, but Republicans are controlling the redistribution process in more states as they seek to regain control of Congress. In many cases, communities of color “emerge as the primary targets” of “particularly brazen” redistribution plans, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

The pair of federal voting rights bills are designed to counter these partisan efforts to tip the elections by setting federal standards for voting, redistribution and campaign finance while restoring and strengthening the law on voting rights. 1965 voting rights.

Republicans say the two bills would overturn federal elections, which are administered by state and local governments. However, federal election monitoring to prevent racial discrimination existed under the Voting Rights Act for nearly half a century, until the monitoring provisions were severely eroded by the Supreme Court in 2013.

Consider Texas, a state with a long history of racist voter suppression. In every redistribution cycle since the law was passed, courts have found that at least one of the state’s electoral maps violated the Voting Rights Act or the Constitution, according to the Justice Department. The department’s lawsuit against the latest statewide electoral maps of Texas asserts that this long tradition of racial gerrymandering continues today.

For example, people of color make up 95% of the population growth in Texas, which has earned the state two additional seats in the House, but the two new Congressional districts the Republicans created in Austin and Houston are predominantly white. .

Due to its racist history, Texas and other southern states were required under Voting Rights Act to submit any changes to voting and elections to the federal government for review until that the historic 2013 decision of an increasingly conservative Supreme Court gutters the “authorization pre-clause” of the voting rights law. Subsequent Supreme Court rulings further eroded the voting rights law.

Had preclearance been in effect, Texas would have submitted its redistribution plans to federal scrutiny, and the maps that are now accused of diluting the electoral power of non-white voters may not have quickly become law. Instead, the Justice Department is now seeking to enforce the voting rights law in the courts after many of the law’s more stringent protections against racial discrimination were dismantled.

“While we appreciate the federal government’s involvement, what we need to stop the five-decade cycle of having to take legal action every ten years is for Congress to pass the law on freedom to vote, “said Anthony Gutierrez, director of the democracy reform group Common Cause Texas, in a statement.

According to the original interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, the voter suppression laws in Georgia, Texas and Florida would also have undergone federal scrutiny before coming into effect this year. But in the absence of preclearance, voting rights advocates are fighting states in court over laws already signed by Republican governors.

“The preclearance kept these things from happening in the first place,” Mitchell said.

Together, the two Senate Democrats’ voting rights bills would restore preclearance under the Voting Rights Act while updating the formula for determining which states must comply due to the discrimination against voters in the past, as the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that emptied preclearance encouraged Congress to do so.

Mitchell said many of the conditions that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 still exist today as politicians continue to shape elections around their “racial political interests.” Without federal protections and oversight, Mitchell said, Justice Department voting rights lawyers and Democrats will be playing a mole game, with state politicians continually trying to make it harder to vote or redraw the boundaries. constituencies to maximize their party’s chances. to win, often at the expense of marginalized voters.

The question now is whether Democrats will find the political will to respond to activists’ demands by overhauling voting rights before the end of the year.

“What we thought would happen, did… and the end result was less accountability, less franchise and less power for communities that have historically been deprived of power,” Mitchell said.

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