The struggle for voting rights in the United States has come to an extremely important juncture. After watching Republicans pass state bills that impose new voting restrictions, Joe Biden and Senate Democrats are poised to make their most aggressive effort yet to push back.
Later this week, the Senate will vote on legislation that would be the most significant expansion of voting rights protections since the civil rights era.
Here’s a look at how the fight for voting rights has unfolded over the past year:
Why are voting rights threatened?
All the data from the 2020 election indicates that it is one of the most successful in American history. On two-thirds of eligible voters – 158 million people – voted, a record turnout. About a week after the election, a coalition of experts, including a senior official in Donald Trump’s Department of Homeland Security, describes the election as “the safest in American history”.
Nonetheless, lawmakers in Republican states have fueled an unprecedented wave of legislation to impose new restrictions on voting. In total, more than 440 bills including measures to restrict access to voting were introduced in 49 states in 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Thirty-four of these bills became law in 19 states.
Many measures place restrictions on postal voting, which was used in unprecedented numbers in 2020 amid the Covid pandemic.
Republicans in Florida and Georgia, for example, have restricted or banned the use of postal ballot boxes, widely used in 2020 to ensure ballots reach election stations on time. Some states have also imposed new identification requirements for voters both when applying for and returning a ballot, despite no evidence of widespread fraud. Georgian lawmakers have passed measures prohibiting the provision of food or water to people queuing to vote.
Republicans have also taken steps to exercise control over who runs and counts. Election administration in the United States has long been viewed as a non-partisan job run by secret officials. But experts fear this new trend, which some call electoral subversion, could lead to partisan interference.
How do Republicans justify what they are doing?
Even though voter fraud is virtually non-existent, Republicans say their measures are necessary to boost confidence in the election. Polls show that a significant number of Americans do not trust the 2020 election results. A recent UMass Amherst poll, for example, found that 33% don’t think the election was legitimate.
This thought belies reality. Much of the shaken confidence is due to Trump continuing to pretend without evidence that the election was rigged. The Republican Party has embraced his demands, ostracizing dissidents.
Republicans also point out that polls show voter ID has broad support and a high turnout, proof that voter suppression isn’t much of an issue. Voting rights groups point out that even though turnout increased in 2020, there are still persistent gaps between white and non-white voters. About 70.9% of white voters voted in 2020, compared to 58.4% of non-white voters, according to the Brennan Center.
In Georgia, lawmakers defended a ban on providing food and water to people in line, saying it was necessary to prevent illegal election campaign.
Will these new laws really help Republicans?
It is not clear that further restrictions will benefit the GOP. A March 2021 study found that postal voting had neither increased turnout nor helped Democrats. That said, there is still a deep concern that Republicans appear to be imposing restrictions in response to an election in which more Americans than ever, including a high number of non-white people, have voted.
Republicans could benefit significantly from efforts to take over election administration. Election officers often have enormous power to make rules.
What are Democrats doing to push back?
The Democratic response revolves around two federal laws. One measure is the Freedom to Vote Act, which would revise the rules for federal elections and establish an extended baseline for voter access. States would be required to offer 15 days of early voting, same-day voter registration and ballot boxes, among other measures. It would also prevent the dismissal of election officials without cause.
The second bill, the John Lewis Advancement of Voting Rights Act, would reinstate a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, requiring that places where there is repeated evidence of recent electoral discrimination to Obtain election changes approved by the federal government. The United States Supreme Court removed a similar requirement in 2013.
What is systematic obstruction and how does it relate to all of it?
Filtration has long been a rule in the Senate. It takes 60 votes to pass legislation to a final vote. The Senate is currently split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats, but Democrats control it through the casting vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. Because there aren’t 10 Republicans supporting the franchise bills, Democrats haven’t been able to budge either.
There has been growing criticism of Democrats’ obstruction, who say Republicans have turned it into a tool of obstruction.
How can Democrats change filibuster?
Democrats can change the obstruction with a majority vote. The problem is that two Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, strongly support the continuation of the filibuster. They say it is an important way to forge bipartisanship. And they argue that getting rid of the rule would allow Republicans, once they return to power, to exercise unlimited power.
There were aggressive negotiations to get the two senators to support the adjustment but not the elimination of the filibuster. Ideas for such changes include requiring senators to actually speak on the Senate floor to delay legislation, or to require 41 senators to actively run to block a vote, instead of requiring 60 votes to advance.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, has pledged to vote this week on the filibuster changes. It’s unclear what changes, if any, Manchin and Sinema are supporting.