In recent years the struggle over voting rights has been played out across the complicated landscape of state governments, and in the federal and state courts. The new Democratic majority in the U.S. House is signaling that it wants to change that, and return to the now-lost era when the federal government acted to guarantee voting rights everywhere.
The House Democrats’ first bill, the “For the People Act,” has three major sections. One (as my colleague Sarah Jones has explained) involves campaign-finance reform. Another focuses on ethics and lobbying reform. The third, as voting-rights expert Ari Berman notes, covers a broad range of efforts to protect the franchise against recent, mostly Republican abuses:
This includes nationwide automatic voter registration, Election Day registration, two weeks of early voting in every state, an end to aggressive voter purging, funding for states to adopt paper ballots, the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, and declaring Election Day a federal holiday. While states control their voting laws, Congress has the power to set voting procedures for federal elections.
The bill would also target partisan gerrymandering by requiring independent commissions instead of state legislatures to draw congressional maps.
These are all familiar ideas, already in place in many states (other than, obviously, the idea of a federal holiday to vote). But taken altogether as a package, they are unprecedented:
The bill represents the most far-reaching democracy reform plan introduced in Congress since the Watergate era. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig calls it “the most important civil rights bill in half a century.” It also builds on recent state-level efforts to expand voting rights: In the 2018 midterms, eight states passed ballot measures to make it easier to vote and harder to gerrymander.
In a separate measure that will be introduced later, House Democrats plan to offer a bill that would reconstruct the federal “preclearance” system for potential voting-rights violations that was struck down as obsolete in the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision, as Talking Points Memo explains:
The House is expected to consider a separate bill that would restore the provision of the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court dismantled. That provision required states and localities with a history of racial voter discrimination to get election policy changes pre-approved by the federal government. The bill to address head on the Shelby County decision is moving on its own track, a House Democratic aide told TPM, so the House can build a record of the voter suppression that has happened since the decision came down. Such a public record, legal experts believe, will help protect a VRA fix, if passed, from court challenges conservatives may try to bring against it.
There’s actually faint Republican support in Congress for fixing the VRA — veteran GOP congressman James Sensenbrenner co-sponsored a bill in the last Congress with Democrat John Conyers to do just that — but it has been of zero interest to party leaders or the Trump Justice Department.
And in fact, none of the voting-rights initiatives House Democrats are promoting have any sort of immediately viable future so long as the GOP controls the Senate and Trump is in the White House. But the priority Democrats are placing on this set of issues is potentially significant, for two reasons.
First of all, making voting rights a national political issue instead of a state-level preoccupation or an obscure subject of litigation could pave the way to major reforms if and when Democrats have a governing majority in Washington. The last big federal voting-rights push occurred after the 2000 Florida fiasco, and resulted in the Help America Vote Act of 2002, a pallid set of largely hortatory encouragements, supplemented by inadequate grants, aimed at getting states to clean up their act in administering elections. It notably failed. Maybe next time Congress will get both tougher and more generous in creating carrots and sticks for more voter-friendly registration and election systems.
But as the HAVA example sadly illustrates, voting rights simply have not been a day-in-and-day-out preoccupation, even for Democrats, but rather an occasional topic of discussion during and occasionally just after electoral outrages. The current House Democratic focus on voting rights, and particularly its comprehensive nature, is a very good sign that this crucial issue is finally getting the attention it deserves, at least on one side of the partisan barricades. And perhaps, though this is less likely, Republicans can even be shamed into rethinking their increasingly reflexive opposition to voting rights, which used to be limited largely to its neo-segregationist southern conservative wing. As recently as 2006, George W. Bush signed a reauthorization of the VRA that included the very features SCOTUS invalidated in 2013. With or without Republican support, it’s not too audacious to think these and other protections for the right to vote can be restored.