With the U.S. midterm elections slated for November, the fight in Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation has left Democrats and electoral rights activists worried that time is running out for reforms. .
“The honest answer to God is I don’t know if we can do it,” US President Joe Biden told reporters earlier this month. “As long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged, I will fight.”
Despite exhaustive lobbying efforts, a failed attempt by Democrats to change longstanding Senate rules, and an impassioned plea from Biden, Congress has been unable to pass major bills that supporters say , would increase federal protections for the vote.
“The failure of Congress to pass updated legislation for the 21st century is truly disappointing,” Poy Winichakul, a lawyer at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Al Jazeera. “We are going to see an onslaught of election law changes that will have particularly serious negative impacts on voters of color.”
Opponents argue that the legislation, which would set national standards for voting, gives the federal government too much power over local decisions.
“We don’t need these bills because we don’t need a federal election process. States run their elections well,” Jessica Anderson, executive director of the conservative group Heritage Action, told Al Jazeera. “If Delaware, Joe Biden’s home state, doesn’t want early voting days and Georgia wants to have 21, that’s great. It’s up to the states to choose.
Americans are divided on how to approach this basic tenet of democracy.
Conservatives say they fear ballot box fraud and want to ensure elections are secure. But Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to make it harder to vote on purpose to disproportionately affect nonwhite voters. Neither side trusts the other to pursue any electoral reform measures in good faith.
In many battleground states, liberal and conservative activists have made voting a key issue. Last year, several state legislatures passed new laws to overhaul their voting processes. In terms of access to the ballot, the record is mixed, according to an analysis conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University: 19 states have enacted laws that have made it “more difficult for Americans to vote”, while that 25 states have passed laws “with provisions that expand access to the vote.”
Last year, Heritage Action pledged to spend $10 million on a campaign to pressure government officials to pass laws. The campaign, which focused on eight key battleground states, aimed to pass laws requiring voter identification, limit the use of mail-in ballots and encourage policies to verify the citizenship of voters. voters and voters lists.
It has had some success: After the 2020 elections, states like Georgia and Texas passed bills that made sweeping changes to their voting processes. In March 2021, Georgia passed a major voting bill that changed rules for mail-in and early voting, overhauled how votes are counted, and empowered its state election commission. It also limited the time available to apply for postal voting and added new identification requirements.
The Georgia law served as a wake-up call for liberals, who saw the efforts not as a defense of voter integrity, but as a smokescreen to erect barriers at the ballot box.
“It creates compound and cascading effects,” Winichakul said. “Because it creates barriers for people to vote, it puts pressure on the back end of election administrations. But this could lead to longer queues, chaos and confusion.
“While we don’t see long lines across the state, we’re going to see them affect black voters, other voters of color, people with disabilities, students, and other transient populations. We’re going to see this among people who need more options to vote because they might have three jobs and don’t have time to submit their ballot during work hours now that drop boxes don’t are not available 24 hours a day.
The debate over these issues comes at a time when millions of Americans have grown suspicious of the voting process.
Since the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump and his allies have filed dozens of unsuccessful lawsuits challenging the results. Yet despite Trump’s continued ravings that the election was “rigged,” his own administration found no evidence of widespread fraud that would have changed the outcome. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his challenges to election results in battleground states, while meticulous recounts in Georgia and Wisconsin confirmed Biden had won.
Yet Trump’s claim that the election was stolen stuck in the ears of millions of Republicans. About 30% of Americans believe the election was stolen from Trump, including two-thirds of Republicans, according to a Public Religion Research Institute poll last September.
At a press conference earlier this month, Biden himself gave a vague and convoluted response to reporters who were asked if he thought the 2022 election would be “legitimate” without federal reforms. Biden’s spokeswoman later said the president “did not question the legitimacy of the 2022 election.”
Texas also saw a fierce showdown over voting rights last year. In September, Texas passed a new voting bill that opponents say will restrict access to voting, but supporters say it strengthens election integrity.
Among other provisions, the new law prevents counties from offering drive-thru voting, halts 24-hour early voting, and prohibits local election officials from sending unsolicited mail-in ballot requests to potential voters. It also gives poll watchers from both parties more freedom to observe the counting of votes and requires the Texas secretary of state to check the voter rolls of people who said they were not citizens during the vote count. driver’s license application.
The fight for ballot access has inspired Texans like Tayhlor Coleman, a veteran Democratic activist who works to register voters in the state while traveling and living full-time in a converted van for camping. Texas laws prohibit people from registering new voters without the approval of the relevant county, Coleman said, so she is working to become a sanctioned registrar in all 254 counties in the state.
“You cannot register at the state level. You have to go to each county and report to that county in person,” Coleman said. “There shouldn’t be so many barriers between Americans and their fellow citizens to help them get on the voter rolls.”
It’s a project that could take months, but she hopes it will bear fruit when the mid-term season arrives this fall: “I think it’s really hard for people to visualize the impact of these kinds of laws, however benign they may read on paper. …on ordinary Americans.
Indeed, the midterms will serve as a test of how recent state changes will play out while also indicating whether the issue will motivate voters in another contentious election season.
“There is an outpouring of support for the right to vote because these issues are so high on the agenda. It’s a really impressive organizational effort,” Winichakul said. “But that’s going to have to be multiplied by 100 as this year picks up pace.”