The Voting Rights Bill: Equitable and Overdue or Precarious and Destabilizing?
Much has been made of the virtue or danger of the new voting rights legislation Democrats are trying to pass in the United States Senate. While it includes many promising details, due to its expansiveness, I worry it may do more harm than good. While the bill would increase access to voting by establishing an early voting period of at least 15 days pre-election and allow everyone to vote by mail upon request without needing to provide reasoning as part of the Freedom to Vote Act, some of the bill’s provisions are rather concerning.
For example, the bill would require all states to adopt weaker voter ID laws, also as part of the Freedom to Vote Act, allowing voters to merely display a debit card, utility bill, bank statement or a state or federal issued document in their name. In addition, if people don’t have any of those documents, they can procure a written statement verifying their identity from someone who has known them for more than six months and provide that instead, in which case the person who wrote it could be prosecuted for perjury should the statement be proven false. While this increases access to voting, which is great, it also opens the doors more widely to voter fraud. In addition, the new bill would allow previously convicted felons to vote upon being released from jail, which is still a highly contested issue in many states.
Another component of the bill permits distributing food and water to voters on election lines, as long as they are distributed to everyone, regardless of political affiliation. This component still allows states to prohibit the distributors from campaigning, and the overall idea of it seems benign, although I could see how this can be used as a part of possibly unfair campaign strategy.
The bill would also reinstate a vital part of the 1956 Voting Rights Acts, which held that states and jurisdictions which had previously had discriminatory voting habits needed “preclearence,” or agreement from the Department of Justice, before changing voting leglistation. While the 1956 Act’s way of determining which state or jurisdiction had discriminatory voting habits in the past was since deemed unconstitutional, the provision in this new bill, called the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would reinstate the notion of preclearance using different factors. As a part of the Freedom to Vote Act, election day would also become a national holiday, which would make it easier for people to get to vote. The bill would also make it illegal for states to set up congressional boundaries in a way that would aid a specific political party, known as a partisan gerrymander. Also, according to the new bill, if group donors give over 10,000 dollars toward a campaign, they would need to disclose themselves to the public, promoting transparency. In theory, these provisions sound well-meaning and only fair, but with all these new regulations, I foresee a lot of political strife. Instead of using them to further just voting practices, I’m afraid they will be used instead to drive political agendas as the lines between equitable and inequitable get entangled due to the ambiguity of these new standards.
The voting rights bill, an amalgamation of the Freedom to Vote Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (Montellaro, 2022, section 1), combines a lot of different, charged ideas and I don’t think they should have been put all together in one bill. By doing so, it makes it almost impossible for Senators who agree on some of the sections and disagree on others to allow the bill to pass. Instead, while it might be more tedious, I think the bill should be divided into many separate issues and that each group should be voted on alone.
In order for this bill to pass, 60 out of 100 Senators need to vote for it. Since the Senate is roughly split between Democrats and Republicans, this controversial legislation has not been passed. However, Democrats have proposed changing the filibuster rule to require only a simple majority in order to pass such legislation, instead of 60 according to current rules. This proposal has also faced a lot of backlash, and it seems unlikely that the Senate will override the filibuster rule anytime soon. It might be tempting to change the rule because it would prevent a lot of standstills the Senate currently faces with partisan issues, but the status quo also protects Democracy and ensures vital consensus in our upper chamber in order to pass far-reaching legislation. While changing the filibuster rule might get their deeply coveted Voting Rights Bill passed, I think it puts too much on the line and it isn’t worth the risk, even in the face of this Senate’s highly progressive agenda.
Photo Caption: Florida voter holding a sticker saying that they voted
Photo Credit: Unsplash/ Mick Haupt