5 Ways To Defend Voting Rights In 2022 And Beyond
The defeat of the last voting rights bill in Congress has left activists, politicians and Black communities looking for ways to ensure that voting remains a basic right for all.
January 26, 2022 at 11:20 am
Last week’s defeat of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act was expected but disappointing. Politicians and voting rights advocates had been fighting for voting rights protections for some time, combined with behind-the-scenes work by Vice President Kamala Harris and a late public push by President Joe Biden. But Republicans and two conservative Democrats refused to amend Senate filibuster rules, dooming Democrats to come up short in their efforts to pass voting protections. With this defeat, all those worried about the disenfranchisement of Black and other minority voters are searching for new strategies and tactics for protecting equal voting rights for all Americans. As the voting rights battle enters a new phase, here are five ways to protect voting rights in this country.
1. Biden is looking into executive action on voting.
Biden signed an executive order last year that tasked federal agencies with coming up with ways to promote voter registration and participation. As Blavity previously reported, Biden is expected to issue executive orders on police reform, another key issue for Black voters that was defeated in the Senate last year. Leaders such as National Urban League President Marc Morial are pushing Biden to additionally use executive orders to protect voting rights.
Despite the possibility of enacting additional orders, the executive branch of the government has limited power over setting voting policy. The executive branch can, however, challenge voting rules that discriminate against racial minorities or other protected classes of people. The Department of Justice has done just that, filing lawsuits against Georgia and Texas for the restrictive voting laws passed in those states, as well as implementing a second lawsuit against Texas for its gerrymandered redistricting process that disempowers Black and Latino populations.
2. Republicans have expressed interest in reforming the Electoral Count Act.
Though Republicans in Congress have been nearly unanimous in their opposition to voting rights reform, a few have indicated their willingness to cooperate with Democrats, or at least complained that they have not been included. One potential area for bipartisan cooperation is in reforming the Electoral Count Act of 1887, a law intended to help resolve disputed elections. The law was passed after the Republican and Democratic candidates each claimed to have won the 1876 presidential election, a dispute that led to a compromise that settled the controversy but also ended Reconstruction and allowed for Jim Crow to spread across the South. More recently, the Electoral Count Act was used by Republican members of Congress to baselessly object to Joe Biden’s win against Donald Trump, a dispute that spilled over into the Capitol Hill insurrection last January.
Several moderate Republican senators, such as Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine, have publicly called for working with Democrats to reform this law. Conservative Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who helped kill voting rights legislation by upholding the filibuster, also support reforming the Electoral Count Act. While reforming this law would help prevent the type of ridiculous challenges that Trump supporters raised after the 2020 election, it would not do anything to change voter suppression laws across the country. This reform could also give Republicans and conservative Democrats an excuse not to engage in broader reforms; bipartisan cooperation on the Electoral Count Act is, therefore, a promising but risky proposition.
3. Democrats need to win a larger majority in Congress.
For real voting rights reform to pass, it must get through the Senate, where a razor-thin Democratic majority has failed to pass reforms due to the opposition of Manchin and Sinema. Democrats have the opportunity to add to their Senate majority this fall, as voters will decide on 34 Senate seats. Twenty of those seats are currently held by Republicans, including several who are retiring rather than running for re-election, giving Democrats opportunities to pick up seats in several states.
Growing the Democratic majority in the Senate will be an uphill battle, though. The party in power typically loses seats during midterm elections, which would give Republicans a historical advantage in 2022. Additionally, the failure of Democrats to pass legislation like voting rights protections, police reform or the Build Back Better plan may make voters less likely to give them a second chance. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is also in danger, and a Republican majority in either house of Congress would continue to block voting protections.
4. State governments can pass stronger voting rights protections.
While the fight to protect voting rights was recently in the national spotlight, much of the activity for and against voter protection has happened on the state level, where governors and state legislators have implemented restrictions while opposing legislators have attempted to resist these measures. The places where voter protections are most crucial, such as states of the deep South with long histories of racial exclusion, are the places where voting restrictions are instead being implemented. Moreover, in 2021 alone, voting restrictions were proposed in nearly every state. The trend has been to make voting more difficult, especially for minority and Democratic-leaning populations.
Reversing this trend will likely require Democratic victories in governor races and state legislatures, which is an uphill battle in many Southern states under firm Republican control. However, recent elections have demonstrated that a number of Southern states, such as Georgia, Virginia, Florida and Texas, have turned blue or at least purple, giving Democrats a chance to make gains in former Republican strongholds. In Georgia, for example, Stacey Abrams became one of the nation’s most prominent voting rights advocates after voter suppression led to her defeat in the previous election. She is again running to become governor, and her election would presumably lead to significant changes in the repressive rules passed in that state.
5. Democrats may have to out-organize voter suppression after all.
Last year, the White House drew anger from voting rights advocates and progressive politicians when it suggested that Democrats could simply out-organize voter suppression and win elections under unequal circumstances. As distasteful and defeatist as this notion was last year, the out-organize strategy may be necessary for the immediate future. If Democrats hope to make gains in Congress or state governments, especially in divided or Republican-leaning states and districts, they will likely have to implement massive efforts to register, educate and mobilize voters, especially Black and other minority voters who are being targeted by suppression laws. Campaigns like First Lady Michelle Obama’s push to register 1 million new voters seem to acknowledge this reality. To be successful, such campaigns will have to overcome not only Republican opposition but divides between progressive and moderate Democrats as well.
Nevertheless, just as the passage of laws like the Voting Rights Act of 1965 came only after years of intense and difficult mobilization, the fight to protect voting rights, and to put in place elected officials who will preserve these rights, will likely be long and challenging. Though voting rights advocates have seen significant setbacks in recent years, many remain dedicated to fighting this battle until American democracy is protected and everyone has equal access to the fundamental right to vote.