West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, issued a letter this week urging Congress to find a bipartisan path forward to reauthorize the decades-old Voting Rights Act.
The missive to congressional leaders in the House and Senate seeks to break through the impasse on voting rights legislation as Republican-led states around the country erect new barriers to the ballot box.
“Since enactment, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has been reauthorized and amended five times with large, bipartisan majorities,” the senators wrote. “Protecting Americans’ access to democracy has not been a partisan issue for the past 56 years, and we must not allow it to become one now.”
But partisan battles have dominated voting rights debates in Washington and in the states, and bipartisan compromise appears elusive on any of the federal voting bills.
Here’s a look at the competing election bills in Congress and obstacles to their passage:
For the People Act
These sweeping measures, designated as S.1 in the Senate and H.R.1 in the House, touch on everything from the ground rules for voting to new disclosure requirements for presidents and changes to campaign finance law.
On elections, they would set a federal baseline for election rules and thwart some of the voting restrictions passed in key battleground states this year. Among other things: They would mandate 15 days of early voting and neuter states’ strict voter ID requirements by allowing voters casting ballots in federal elections to submit a sworn affidavit instead of identification.
They also would require automatic and same-day voter registration and pre-paid postage on absentee ballots.
Although iterations of the bills have been around for several years, their proponents say the push to clamp down on access to the ballot in Republican-led states give them new urgency.
Republicans in Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, call the push a partisan takeover of elections and show no signs of ever backing the bills – a problem in a Senate that’s divided 50-50 along partisan lines. (Vice President Kamala Harris can break ties, giving Democrats a narrow edge on some matters, such as confirming executive branch nominees.)
“Our democracy is not in crisis,” McConnell declared last week during committee debate on the For the People Act, “and we are not going to let one party take over our democracy under the false pretense of saving it.”
The For the People Act passed the Democratic-controlled House earlier his year. But it’s mired in the Senate, where it lacks Manchin’s support and faces a wall of resistance from Republicans. Last week, members of the evenly divided Senate Rules Committee deadlocked 9-9 on moving it out of committee.
Although Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, has procedural avenues to bring the bill to the floor, it’s unlikely to ever pass unless the 60-vote threshold to overcome a legislative filibuster is dismantled.
And Manchin, along with Republicans and several other moderate Democrats, opposes abandoning the filibuster.
John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act
This proposal, named after late Georgia Democratic congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis aims to restore enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act. It first became law in 1965, shortly after a bloody law enforcement attack on peaceful voting rights activists on a bridge in Selma, Alabama, shocked and shamed the nation into action.
The Voting Rights Act’s requirements – that nine states and parts of others with a history of racial discrimination win federal approval, or “pre-clearance” before changing their election procedures – were nullified by the Supreme Court in its 2013 Shelby County v Holder decision. (The court didn’t strike down pre-clearance but said the law relied on an old formula that needed updating. Congress hasn’t agreed on a new formula in the intervening years.)
Soon after the ruling, states began erecting new barriers to voting, ranging from voter ID laws to signature-matching requirements. And those efforts ramped up this year with many Republican-controlled states proposing a raft of new voting restrictions, spurred on by former President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election.
A recent version of the new John Lewis Act would extend pre-clearance to states that have incurred multiple voting rights violations in the last 25 years – an attempt to get around the Supreme Court majority’s concern in Shelby that states were being punished for decades-old misdeeds, rather than current discriminatory practices.
Although a version of the Voting Rights Act rewrite passed the House in an earlier Congress, the John Lewis Act is not actually a bill right now. Committee hearings to fine-tune its provisions are planned as a precursor to its reintroduction in the House.
Many Democrats and voting rights activists say both the For the People Act and the John Lewis bill are needed.
Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Georgia Democrat on the ballot next year in a state that has upended its election rules, is urging passage of both measures. He recently described it this way to reporters, according to The Washington Post: “The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act builds for us the fire station to protect us against future fires. But the house of democracy, as a result of these voter suppression bills all across the country, is on fire right now.”
Voting Rights Act update
Manchin wants Congress to focus on passing an update of the Voting Rights Act.
In their letter Monday to House and Senate leaders, Manchin and Murkowski urged Congress to pass a version of the bill that could garner bipartisan support.
“Inaction is not an option,” they wrote. “Congress must come together – just as we have done time and again – to reaffirm our longstanding bipartisan commitment to free, accessible, and secure elections for all.”
Manchin has offered some clues of what the bill should look like. He told ABC News last week that the pre-clearance provisions should extend to all 50 states and territories – not just those with a history of racial discrimination.
That could help address another concern of the majority in the Supreme Court that gutted the Voting Rights Act in the first place: that the law imposed unequal burdens on states, by subjecting only some states to federal review. But the court’s makeup has shifted even more to the right since 2013, with a new 6-3 conservative majority.
And Manchin’s insistence that Congress advance a new version of the Voting Rights Act may get nowhere unless he’s willing to budge on the filibuster. After all, Murkowski was the only Republican in the Senate to co-sponsor the Voting Rights Act rewrite in the last Congress.