For the third time this year, Senate Republicans filibustered voting-rights legislation to death. The first two bills to succumb to the filibuster were the comprehensive For the People Act and a more modest Freedom to Vote Act, whose chief sponsor was the famously bipartisan Senator Joe Manchin. But the measure Republicans killed on Tuesday, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, is fundamentally different from the earlier bills, even though Mitch McConnell won’t acknowledge it:
The John Lewis legislation would not give the attorney general “sweeping new powers,” if by that you mean powers greater than those most of his predecessors had dating back to the enactment of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. The bill doesn’t, like the two earlier voting-rights measures McConnell killed, create new grounds; it takes back ground removed by a 5-4 Supreme Court majority in 2013. Before that, these “sweeping powers” were supported by nearly everyone in Congress, including Mitch McConnell, as election law expert Rick Hasen points out:
The Shelby County v. Holder decision invalidated a provision of the VRA (the formula for determining jurisdictions subject to a Justice Department preclearance for voting and election law changes) as outdated but did not strike down the Section 5 preclearance authority at all. Indeed, Chief Justice John Roberts all but invited Congress to update Section 4 instead of allowing it to be guided by 40-year-old data. That is precisely what the John Lewis Act is designed to do. At most it restores to the Justice Department powers it possessed last time Congress extended the VRA with a unanimous vote by the Senate and the support (and signature) of Republican president George W. Bush, who said: “My administration will vigorously enforce the provisions of this law, and we will defend it in court.”
What’s changed in the last 15 years to make the entire Senate GOP (with the exception of Lisa Murkowski) flip from insisting upon to contemptuously opposing a robust Voting Rights Act? It couldn’t be quibbles with the exact formula for preclearance jurisdiction contained in the John Lewis Act, since Republicans (again, other than Murkowski) have never bothered to enter into negotiations over the language or offered their own approach. This isn’t a matter of differing avenues to a shared goal; it’s a rejection of voting rights itself.
Some of this devolution likely stems from the recent avid interest in enacting voter-suppression laws among state-level Republicans, which has led their congressional allies to oppose any and all federal election legislation. Some of it may come from a sense that a Republican Party that all but denies the very existence of white racism is building a political home for white racists. And there’s no question the lagging commitment of the GOP to democracy itself under the lash of Donald J. Trump has undermined many old commitments. But whatever the underlying motives, the hypocritical and categorical abandonment of voting rights by the party of Lincoln is shameless.