10 Things to Understand about the Freedom to Vote Act
Why it was important and why it failed.
Last night the Senate used the filibuster to block the Freedom to Vote Act. Democrats Krysten Sinema (AZ) and Joe Manchin (WV) joined all the Republican Senators to stop the bill. The bill had previously passed the House of Representatives 219-213. After the vote, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) made a faux pas by saying, “The concern is misplaced if you look at the statistics, African American voters are voting in just as high a number as Americans."
The Freedom to Vote Act was a stripped down version of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Even still, the bill would have expanded voting by providing early voting, vote by mail, make Election Day a holiday, create a national standard for voter identification/verification, crack down on deceptive practices, ensure lines at polling locations were no more than 30 minutes, enhanced protection of ballots, banning partisan gerrymandering, same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, requiring post-election audits, and shoring up campaign transparency.
Throughout various polls, the majority of Americans supported the bill; the support was as high as 80% on some particular measures.
Why was this bill important? A little history…
On August 6, 1965, surrounded by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law. The law outlawed dishonest practices which prevented Black people from fulfilling their constitutional right to vote. Some of those practices included election officials telling Black people that they had gotten the wrong date, time, polling place, and turning away people because they had insufficient literacy skills. The law also provided the appointment of Federal examiners (with the power to register qualified citizens to vote) in those jurisdictions that were "covered" according to a formula provided in the statute. In addition, the act required covered jurisdictions to obtain "preclearance" from either the District Court for the District of Columbia or the U.S. Attorney General for any new voting practices and procedures.
In the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a 5-4 vote, the Justices ruled that the formula to determine which jurisdictions were required to obtain preclearance was unconstitutional because the formula was based on 40-year-old data. Following the ruling, nearly 1000 polling locations closed, many of them in predominant African-American counties. Additional restrictions on voting (virtually all enacted by Republicans) included cutting early voting, purging voting records, and stricter voter ID laws.
In 2021, the Supreme Court heard the case Brovnich v. Democratic National Committee. The DNC was suing Arizona for two laws. One law banned third parties, such as voting-rights activists, from collecting mail-in ballots from voters who were unable or unwilling to submit those ballots themselves. The other law required officials to throw out ballots cast in the wrong precinct. While lower courts had ruled in favor for the DNC, citing that Arizona’s practices overwhelmingly prevented minority voters from participating in the political process, the Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision in a 6-3 ruling. With these two Supreme Court cases, much of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was rendered impotent.
Following winning the 2016 Presidential election, President Donald Trump, without evidence, accused his opponent Hillary Clinton of getting substantial illegal votes (even though she lost the election). Shortly after he entered office, he signed an executive order establishing the “Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity.” The commission’s first task was to try and get states to provide detailed voter information, including names, addresses, party affiliation, partial social security numbers, etc. The commission was met with various lawsuits, never substantiated President Trump’s claim, and after only meeting twice, it was dissolved about seven months following its initiation.
To prepare for the 2020 election in the midst of a pandemic, states expanded access to voting including mail-in ballots. Prior to the election, President Trump began repeating the unfounded claim that there would be wide-spread voter fraud. On election night, Joe Biden received 306 electoral college votes and a total of 81.3 million votes (51.3%) defeating incumbent Donald Trump who received 232 electoral college votes and a total of 74.2 million votes (46.8%). The 159.7 million votes representing a 66.9% voter eligible turnout shattered the 2016 turnout of 136.7 million votes representing 59.2% of voter eligibility.
Donald Trump and his allies continued to allege voting fraud and every one of the 50 lawsuits claiming election fraud were dismissed by state and federal courts. Despite recount after recount, the vote total was virtually unchanged. The Associated Press did an independent review and found only 475 potential cases of voter fraud in the 6 battleground states. The instances weren’t all for one side or the other, and they would have made no difference in the election.
Between January and September 2021, 19 states enacted 33 laws that make it harder to vote, while 25 states enacted 62 laws that expand voting access. However, among those that restricted voting access, it is already difficult to vote. Some of the restrictions include shortening the window to apply for a mail ballot, shortening the deadline to deliver a mail ballot, increase number of voters per precinct, limit early voting, and reducing polling place availability.
I have lived in Maryland, which is gerrymandered to pieces by the Democrats, and I have lived in the swing state of Pennsylvania, which is gerrymandered by the Republicans. I am convinced that each party will do what’s in their best interest to stay in power, because I’ve experienced it first hand from both sides. I have worked with people running for office, and so I know that Republicans hope for rain on Election Day to limit the number of people that make it to the polls (particularly economically disadvantaged people who may lack personal transportation). Meanwhile Democrats will go through the neighborhoods with vans to help people get to the polls.
I am more than a little cynical. I think both sides had ulterior motives in how they voted for this bill. But with that said, this bill had something for both parties - curbing gerrymandering, prohibiting foreign interference in election, automatic vote audits, higher election security, etc. Most importantly, however, this helped expand democracy (by helping more people get to the polls), and in the end, ultimately that hurts the Republican Party.
Paul Weyrich, one of the founders of the Moral Majority (which became a religious voting bloc for the Republican Party), stated, “[Christians] want everyone to vote. I don’t want everyone to vote. Elections are not won by a majority.” He was right. In the last 6 presidential elections (which have been equally won 3 times by each party due to the Electoral College system), the Democratic candidate has won 5 of the 6 popular votes. And so Republicans have a compelling reason to limit access to voting, while Democrats have a compelling reason to try and expand it.
When President George H.W. Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992, he said, “Here’s the way I see it, here’s the way we see it, the country should see it: that the people have spoken and we respect the majesty of the democratic system.”
In a democracy, one wins elections by appealing to more voters. When that proves difficult, lazy and self-serving politicians resort to suppressing votes. By doing so they turn the majesty of the democratic system into their personal whore.
Last night, America took another step away from the ideals of democracy and another step closer to a system ripe for authoritarianism. Instead of a push for more equality, it entrenched itself further in systemic racism. There’s a long history of minorities, particularly Black Americans, being treated as second-class citizens, particularly at the polls. If blocking the bill didn’t send a clear message to the African American community, Mitch McConnell’s faux pas certainly did.