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Crucial Voting Rights Bills Stand Little Chance of Passing This Year. We Should Advocate Fiercely for Them Anyway

Map showing the U.S. states enacting laws to restrict voting during 2023

By Jeff Milchen
October 24, 2023
This report expands on a column first published by UUWorld.org

In early 2022, Senators Joe Manchin (D – WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (I – AZ) joined Republican senators to block a vote from occurring on any major voter protection bills by supporting a Republican filibuster, leaving states largely unrestrained to pass laws making voting more difficult and suppressing various classes of voters. 

Many states continue exploiting the opportunity created by the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) when it gutted the Voting Rights Act with its 2013 Shelby County (AL) v. Holder ruling. Despite some SCOTUS rulings asserting limits on how much election rules may be manipulated for partisan advantage, at least 14 state legislatures enacted 17 restrictive laws during the first nine months of 2023. All of those will be in effect for the 2024 general elections. These include burdensome ID laws, attacks on voter registration efforts, restricting early voting, voting by mail, and making drop boxes scarce. Those laws impede many eligible voters but deliberately impact voters of color, youth, and limited mobility most heavily.

In June, the SCOTUS rejected the extreme claim that state legislation regarding elections is immune from judicial review by state supreme courts (Moore v Harper), but that ruling has little impact in states where the highest court refuses to protect voters or democracy.

Filibusters Still Subverting Democracy

The filibuster continues to be a tool for perpetuating racial injustice and minority rule. The Democratic/Independent majority in U.S. Senate could choose to exclude filibusters from being employed to block voting rights advances even if they prefer not to abolish the filibuster entirely — just as Republicans packed the U.S. Supreme Court with regressive Justices by prohibiting judicial nominations from being filibustered when they held a majority. 

Thankfully, even more states have passed pro-democracy laws reducing barriers and presenting disenfranchisement. For example, Pennsylvania enacted automatic voter registration in September while New York passed a multi-faceted law to make voting easier and ensure all valid votes are counted. Some major court rulings leaned in favor of democracy, too, including the SCOTUS forcing Alabama to redraw voting districts to expand the voting power of Black citizens.

 We cannot accept a status quo that allows any defeats that disenfranchise and strip away voting power from BIPOC, youth, and other groups of citizens who already wield disproportionately little. Unitarian Universalists (UUs) collectively believe democracy must be both accessible and equitable for all people and all communities and consistently advocate for voting access. The use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large is a fundamental UU principle, and defending democracy is essential to fulfilling our ideals.

Good News on State Voting Laws

The Brennan Center for Justice reports at least 23 states enacted 47 laws making it easier to vote this year, outnumbering restrictive laws by almost three to one. 

This fall, two of the crucial voter protection bills filibustered in the previous Congress are again active: the Freedom to Vote Act (FTVA) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Key actions the FTVA would compel include:

  • Banning partisan gerrymandering of voting districts
  • Making automatic voter registration universal and eliminating the pointless exercise of forcing citizens to apply for permission to exercise a ‘right”
  • Mandating the restoration of voting ability for formerly-incarcerated citizens upon their release
  • Protecting citizens from voter roll purges
  • Prohibiting disenfranchisement via excessive waiting lines to vote
  • Creating a private right of action enabling voters to sue if they are deprived of voting or having their vote counted
  • Limit the corrupting power of secret money by requiring any entity spending $10k or more on electioneering to disclose its donors
  • Numerous provisions protect against subversion of elections and election results 
See the Brennan Center for Justice for a detailed summary of the bill.

The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would reinstate key elements of the Voting Rights Act that the SCOTUS discarded a decade ago and require states with a record of discriminatory voting laws to submit proposed changes to any voting laws to the Department of Justice for review and approval (often referred to as preclearance). Since 2013, any new state election laws have been presumed legal, placed the burden of proof on those harmed, and allowed harmful laws to stay in effect unless and until they are struck down in court. This backwards logic that allows discriminatory laws to take full effect while any challenge winds through the courts may have altered the 2022 elections enough to shift the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Along with restoring geographic preclearance, the John Lewis Act also would require election officials to announce all voting changes to the public at least 180 days before an election and subject laws that would implement many common disenfranchisement tactics to preclearance regardless of the entity proposing the law. 

The John Lewis Act also incorporates provisions previously introduced within the Native American Voting Act to protect the rights of Indigenous voters and address barriers often experienced by those living on tribal lands. Those provisions include:

  • States demanding voter IDs must accept tribal or federally issued ID
  • States with early voting must place an early polling place on tribal lands
  • Enables tribes to designate a communal address that members lacking a standard  residential mailing address may use

See the Brennan Center’s fact sheet for more.

Yes, these bills face long odds without a change in the composition of Congress, but focusing energy on these bills is essential to elevate fundamental concerns about justice and democracy. As Nicole Pressley, Field and Programs Director for the UUA’s Organizing Strategy Team, told me, “This struggle is powerful because it unveils the fact that we have a faithful pro-democracy majority in this country! We are not fighting a new battle. We are carrying forward the work of communities and movements decades in the making. We may not win today, but inaction today guarantees a loss tomorrow.”

To advance voting rights more effectively, the Unitarian Universalist Association not only houses the UU the Vote campaign, but allies with more than 240 pro-democracy organizations via Declaration for American Democracy. Pressley reports enthusiastically that (thanks to generous contributions by UUs) UU the Vote soon will transform from a bi-annual campaign to a proactive, year-round program advancing voting rights and democracy with the addition of a full-time Democracy Strategist.

“Faith movements are so powerful in democracy work,” says Pressley. “We hold prophetic visions of a just world that keep us in the struggle and proclaim victories not yet realized.” 

Take Action!

See our online toolkit for crafting effective letters, calls and social media posts to advance crucial voting rights protections.

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