What is the big deal about expanding voter rights? You wouldn’t think that legislation making it easier for people to vote would be a problem. Shouldn’t every state want its citizens to have a polling place nearby with convenient hours or the option to vote by mail? The Freedom to Vote Act would guarantee that and more, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said the act is a solution in need of a problem.
Is it? According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have enacted 33 laws limiting, not expanding, voting rights. This is the actual problem. This state legislation reduces the number and hours of in-person polling places; limits or eliminates the option to vote by mail or severely limits the number and locations of boxes to return vote-by-mail ballots; transfers election responsibility from neutral, nonpartisan state, county or local officials to partisan appointees; institutes severe criminal penalties for innocuous election mistakes by local officials; and cements partisan gerrymandering.
These states claim this type of legislation is necessary to prevent fraud.
Federal election infrastructure officials, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council and the National Association of Secretaries of State issued a joint statement Nov. 12, 2020, describing that year’s election as one of the most secure in our country’s history. Despite claims of fraud, more than 60 state and federal judges have found there was no such evidence. The Department of Justice and FBI cybersecurity teams in place during the last administration found no evidence of fraud. The third Maricopa County, Arizona, election audit performed by Cyber Ninjas not only found no evidence of fraud but that President Joe Biden won in that county by more votes than previously counted.
In light of this evidence, isn’t the repressive voting legislation being enacted across the country the solution in search of a problem?
Yet, the Freedom to Vote Act was filibustered in the Senate, just like the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The Freedom to Vote Act contains compromises negotiated by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that were claimed to have enough support to override a filibuster. But when the act came before the Senate, all Democrats voted in favor of it and all Republicans voted against it. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer of New York changed his vote to a no, a procedural move that will allow the act to be reconsidered. The 10 votes Sen. Manchin claimed to have to override the filibuster never materialized.
The Freedom to Vote Act is the national solution to the problem of the repressive voter legislation being enacted across the country. It will ensure that states do not have to fight this battle individually again and again.
You wouldn’t think it should be such a problem to pass a law making it easier for everyone to vote. But it is, and the filibuster is the reason.
The filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era. According to the Brennan Center, it was used in the 19th century by pro-slavery senators to protect the interests of Southern White landowners who depended on slave labor. Filibusters blocked measures such as anti-lynching bills proposed in 1922 and 1935; the Civil Rights Act of 1957; and legislation that would have prohibited poll taxes and outlawed discrimination in employment, housing and voting.
It is now being used to block expansive voting legislation that would increase access to the polls for Black people and people of color, who demographically are now becoming the majority population in this country. But it also will limit White voters’ access to the polls. As Heather McGhee has noted in “The Sum of Us,” so often practices intended to discriminate against Black people and people of color hurt everyone. To make her point, she included the words of a White American she interviewed, who said, “I believe if you don’t have your fundamental right of voting, what do you have? You don’t have nothin’.”
During the past four years, our citizens have worked very hard to elect representatives that will expand voting and civil rights, health care and social welfare programs, women’s rights and reproductive justice, and programs to protect the environment. Our citizens have canvassed, marched and rallied; sent postcards, letters, emails and texts and made phone calls. In 2020, representatives were elected to both houses of the legislative branch and to the executive branch who support these programs. But we still can’t get legislation through Congress because of the filibuster.
If we can’t, at a minimum, ensure voting rights for our citizens, many folks, especially the crucial young voters, are going to be disillusioned. They are going to think, “If I have worked this hard and succeeded in winning a majority in the executive and legislative branches, and we couldn’t get it done, why bother?” The filibuster is only a Senate rule. It is not in the Constitution, and it is not a statute. The Senate can create a new “precedent” to override the rule, or it can carve out an exception to the rule. Both of these options require only a majority vote. The rule must be changed, so that Sen. Schumer can bring the act back to the Senate for another vote. The Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice urges our Democratic Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons to do everything in their power to ensure that the Freedom to Vote Act passes in the Senate. If that means changing the filibuster, then that is what must be done.
If we lose the right to vote, we lose everything. The future of our country is at stake.
Charlotte King is chair and founder of the Southern Delaware Alliance for Racial Justice. Clara S. Licata is co-chair of SDARJ’s Legislative/Advocacy Committee.