Voting Rights Stalled Again in Senate After GOP Blocks Bill
(Bloomberg) -- Senate Republicans blocked legislation designed to restore some protections from the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Forty-nine senators who caucus with Democrats and one Republican voted to advance legislation to give the federal government oversight over state election laws in some cases, falling well short of the 60-vote threshold needed to start debate on the bill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer changed his vote to “no” so that he could seek to have the legislation reconsidered.
The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act, named for the late congressman and civil rights leader, would have restored the federal government’s ability to require preclearances from the Justice Department for state voting law changes to ensure they don’t harm minority voters. A compromise version of the bill introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy gained the endorsement of all the Democrats in the chamber as well as Senator Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican.
“Time is really getting short for the Senate to take action on voting rights before Americans go to the polls in the 2022 elections,” Schumer said on the Senate floor Monday. “It is essential that we restore preclearance protections before the start of next year when states are set to consider another round of restrictive voting rights laws when their legislative sessions start in the spring.”
The effort stems from a 2013 Supreme Court decision that all but invalidated a provision of the Voting Rights Act designed to protect the rights of minority voters. The ruling, which marked one of the biggest civil rights decisions in decades, struck down the law’s formula for determining which states must get federal approval before changing their election rules.
The decision blocked a tool the Justice Department used to halt thousands of state and local voting changes, including identification laws in Texas and South Carolina. Under the preclearance requirement, all or parts of 15 states had to get federal approval before changing election districts, amending voting rules or even moving a polling place.
The Justice Department used the provision, which covers virtually the entire South, to object to more than 2,400 state and local voting changes from 1982 to 2006. Congress reauthorized the law in 2006, extending it for 25 years on lopsided votes: 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House. Then-President George W. Bush, a Republican, signed the measure into law.
Failure to pass this voting rights legislation, one of several the Democrat-controlled chamber has considered this year, will again ramp up pressure by liberals on Schumer and the party to do away with the filibuster -- a step that has been explicitly opposed by Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The current rules require at least 60 affirmative votes to start debate on legislation in the chamber.
“I know that both parties have serious disagreements on this important issue, so we want to hear from the other side what they propose,” Schumer said. “But for that to happen, we need to start debate first. We need to allow the Senate to work through its process. We need 60 votes simply to say that we will debate this issue.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder didn’t narrow voting rights and called the new bill a “Trojan Horse” designed to get Democratic changes to election law through.
“There’s no evidence right now anywhere in the country that states are suppressing the vote based upon race,” he said.
The legislation was Democrats’ response to tighter laws on voting emerging from Republican-led state legislatures, which Democrats say aim to curtail participation by minorities and poorer Americans. A previous compromise bill, The Freedom to Vote Act, also failed after a much broader voter access bill was blocked by Republicans in June and again in August.
Leahy, the bill’s author, said that Lewis, who died last year at the age of 80 after spending more than three decades in Congress, would want senators to come together to pass the bill.
“Congressman Lewis would want us to come together and find a path forward to addressing the many threats facing Americans’ foundational right to vote,” Leahy said in a statement. “Now is the time to restore the Voting Rights Act -- a bedrock voting rights law -- and ensure that every citizen is guaranteed their constitutionally protected right to vote.”
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