How a voting rights battle could overhaul U.S. elections

Mike Bebernes
·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The debate over the next coronavirus stimulus package has garnered enormous attention in recent weeks. Meanwhile, a quieter battle over voting rights has been taking place that could fundamentally alter how American elections function.

The House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a sweeping voting rights reform package known as H.R. 1. The bill, also known as the For the People Act, includes a long list of reforms that would expand voting opportunities nationwide, including mandatory early voting periods, automatic voter registration and no-excuse vote by mail. It also seeks to end partisan gerrymandering by requiring that congressional districts be drawn by independent commissions.

Opponents of the bill are also taking aggressive steps to rewrite voting laws in a more restrictive way at the state level in the wake of Donald Trump’s loss in the 2020 presidential race. So far this year, more than 250 bills that would install new limits on voting have been introduced in more than 43 states. Some of the most substantial changes have been proposed in swing states, like Georgia and Florida, that played a key role in the 2020 election.

The courts will play a major role in deciding which voting laws stay in place. This week the Supreme Court heard arguments on a challenge to a pair of voting restrictions in Arizona, with Democrats citing substantial evidence that the limits would disproportionately affect people of color. The case is seen by many legal experts as an opportunity for the court’s conservative majority to further roll back protections of the Votings Rights Act and open the door for Republicans to pass even more restrictive voting laws in the future.

Why there’s debate

Voting laws changed substantially last year as states expanded measures like vote by mail in response to the pandemic, but election experts across the political spectrum say the coming months could have a more dramatic and enduring impact.

In states where Republicans control the legislature and governorship, they will face little opposition in passing voting restrictions on who can vote by mail, reduced early voting and limits on how ballots can be collected. Many GOP lawmakers argue these measures are necessary to prevent fraud, despite a lack of evidence that fraud has played a significant role in recent elections. Critics argue that Republicans are using baseless fraud claims to rig future elections in their favor by passing laws that make it harder for likely Democratic voters to cast ballots.

Many of these laws will face legal challenges, but recent history suggests the Supreme Court is likely to let many of them stand, experts say. Over the past decade, the court’s conservative majority chipped away at limits on voting restrictions — including effectively nullifying a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The case currently being considered could result in another major section of the act being voided.

With H.R. 1, Democrats could not only reverse a large share of the GOP voting restrictions, but also expand voting access in entirely new ways. Though it moved comfortably through the House, the package faces a steep climb in the Senate. Republicans are sure to filibuster the bill, meaning it can only pass if all 50 Senate Democrats are willing to eliminate the filibuster — a step that at least two moderate Democratic senators have publicly opposed. Many voting rights advocates argue that national election reforms are the only way to prevent the GOP from enshrining state-level laws that make it nearly impossible for Democrats to win future national elections.

What’s next

The Senate will hold its first hearings on the For the People Act later this month. As a potential floor vote approaches, all eyes will be on moderate Democrats like Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin to see whether they are willing to amend or eliminate the filibuster to pass the bill. Democrats are also hoping to pass a separate bill to restore protections within the Voting Rights Act sometime in the near future.

Perspectives

The current fight over voting rights will shape the future of U.S. democracy

“It’s no exaggeration to say that future Americans could view the resolution of this struggle as a turning point in the history of U.S. democracy. The outcome could not only shape the balance of power between the parties, but determine whether that democracy grows more inclusive or exclusionary.” — Ronald Brownstein, The Atlantic

The Supreme Court is primed to sign off on aggressive new voting restrictions

“Because conservatives now hold a 6–3 majority on the court, no one seriously expects a resounding victory for equal suffrage. The only real question is exactly how much damage the majority will do to the last vestiges of the landmark civil rights law.” — Mark Joseph Stern, Slate

U.S. democracy is under threat if Democrats don’t defend it

“In other words, if we want a good chance of American democracy continuing to exist at all, HR1 is a necessary precondition.” — Ryan Cooper, The Week

Voting rights may be the issue that finally ends the filibuster

“Debate over the filibuster … is already at a boiling point. If the filibuster winds up killing democracy reform, it may be what finally drives Democrats to turn around and kill the filibuster.” — Paul Blumenthal, HuffPost

H.R. 1 would create nationwide election chaos

“H.R. 1 is packed with provisions that would federalize election rules to dubious result; unsettle longstanding practices; end security measures that local officials think prudent; undermine public confidence; and increase the odds of contested outcomes.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

An unfavorable Supreme Court ruling could motivate Democrats to pass election reforms

“If the Supreme Court moves decisively to narrow Section 2’s impact this summer, it may end up fueling the most sweeping reform of American election laws since, well, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” — Matt Ford, New Republic

Republicans know they can’t win national elections if the rules are fair

“The Republican Party knows that it cannot win a national majority if voting is easy and smooth for everyone. So election laws must be shaped to make it harder for some people than others. It’s about the most important political project Republicans have.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post

The left is overreacting to the GOP’s common-sense voting reforms

“Terms such as ‘voting restrictions’ are tantamount to calling traffic laws ‘driving restrictions.’ They are conveniently ominous sounding, leaving room for endless partisan weaponization against existing laws. … Whereas actual ‘voter suppression’ was once maliciously deployed to obstruct the rights of American citizens, the term now basically implicates a Republican failing to personally mail in his illegal immigrant neighbor’s ballot ten days after an election.” — David Harsanyi, National Review

No one knows which party would benefit from either expanding or limiting voting access

“What if the election reform warriors of both parties are wrong? What if more voter enfranchisement and access don’t help Democrats win elections? What if Republican suppression tactics are inadvertently galvanizing Democrats and suppressing their own vote?— Bill Scher, Washington Monthly

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