US voting rights law goes nowhere as Republican states expand restrictions

Democrats in Washington fail to stem surge of voter restriction laws in Republican-controlled states

Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church is reflected in a man?s sunglasses during a stop on the Freedom Ride For Voting Rights at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. June 21, 2021.  REUTERS/Dustin Chambers
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Democrats in the US Congress on Tuesday failed to pass a legislative package intended to protect voting rights across the country.

The failure came during a Republican push to enact sweeping new voting laws in states they control.

The legislation failed to advance by a 50-50 party-line tie after Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to pass the legislation as the result of a procedural mechanism in the upper chamber called the filibuster.

President Joe Biden appointed Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee the protection of voting rights. But if this failed vote is any indication, she will continue to face an uphill battle.

"Democracy is in peril, here, in America," the White House said before the vote in a statement supporting the legislation.

“The right to vote – a sacred right in this country – is under assault with an intensity and an aggressiveness we have not seen in a long time.”

The White House said the bill would have expanded "the tools available to the Justice Department to enforce the voting rights of all Americans".

“In state after state, new restrictive laws on voting and efforts to replace non-partisan election administration with partisan processes designed to overturn the will of the voters have become more widespread.”

Republican legislatures in at least 14 states have enacted 22 voter restriction laws this year, the Brennan Centre for Justice at the New York University School of Law said.

"In a backlash to 2020's historic voter turn-out and unprecedented vote-by-mail usage, state lawmakers have imposed a variety of significant restrictions on mail voting and in-person voting," the Brennan Centre wrote in an analysis of the latest crop of voting laws.

This year's wave of legislation surpasses the record set in 2011, when 14 states passed 19 voting laws.

These laws, passed mainly in Republican-held states during the administration of Barack Obama, largely focused on increasing voter identification requirements, despite the lack of evidence that doing so would substantially prevent voter fraud.

Critics argued that the laws would hinder turn-out among non-white voters, who are statistically less likely to have an acceptable form of identification.

Similarly, voting rights advocates say that the latest crop of voter laws, described by Republicans as "election integrity" laws, would largely reduce turn-out among non-white voters, who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats.

What is the filibuster in US politics?

What is the filibuster in US politics?

Republicans have largely relied on former president Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 elections as a political justification for the new laws.

Conversely, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell derided Democrats' failed voting legislation as a "partisan power grab" on the Senate floor before the vote.

Democrats walked out of the Texas state legislature last month to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to pass an expansive new voting law, although the governor has called a special session next month to push the law through.

Ms Harris met Texas Democrats in Washington last week to praise their walkout, which she framed as an attempt to protect the right of Texans to vote.

"What we are seeing are examples of an attempt to interfere with that right and attempt to marginalise and take from people a right that has already been given," Ms Harris said.

“What’s happening right now in Texas is, of course, a very clear and current example of that.”

Among other things, the Texas voting bill would curtail postal voting, introduce new limits on voter registration, reduce polling locations largely used by non-white voters and increase criminal penalties for breaches of these proposed laws.

It would also ban voting before 1pm on Sundays, hindering black churches that traditionally drive voters to the polls after services – although Republicans now say the provision was a mistake.

Key swing states such as Arizona, Florida, Georgia and Michigan passed similar laws this year.

These laws would also reduce access to ballot drop-off locations, make it harder to vote by mail, increase voter identification requirements and curtail efforts by municipalities to shorten voter lines.

The wait time to vote in-person typically varies based on the racial demographics of a given locality, with white voters throughout the US usually enjoying much shorter, sometimes instantaneous wait times at the polling locations that primarily serve them.

Conversely, queues at polling stations that primarily serve non-white communities can be notoriously long, often forcing voters to wait for hours to cast their ballots.

Black voters face some of the longest queues in Georgia, which in March passed one of the most restrictive voting laws, including a provision to make it illegal to provide food and water to voters queuing up for hours at the polls.

The Supreme Court opened up the floodgates for many of these laws to pass in 2013 when the justices voted five to four in favour of dismantling key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act which sought to protect the rights of black Americans to vote after decades of racist Jim Crow-era policies severely limited their access to the polls.

Although the Voting Rights Act required certain states – largely in the south – that had upheld segregationist policies to obtain federal permission before altering their voting laws, the Supreme Court ruling eliminated this requirement.

The court’s conservative justices argued the requirement was no longer necessary because it was based on data that was more than 40 years old.

The conservative-dominated Supreme Court is expected to rule on additional cases later this year that could further curtail the Voting Rights Act.