Here’s a stat that should terrify anyone who appreciates a free and fair election: lawmakers in 43 states have introduced, carried over, or pre-filed a staggering 253 bills to restrict voting rights in 2021.
That’s right. We just saw an election with historic turnout in 2020, with nearly 160 million Americans voting. We saw Latino turnout soar 30.9% from 2016 and Black voters flex their political muscle to decisive effect. And the response by some state lawmakers has been – effectively – to say, “Nope. Not doing that again.”
For context and comparison, those 253 bills looking to restrict voting rights in 2021 – that number is up around 470% percent from 2020. Which makes it pretty clear what the goal is here: limiting the vote – and shaping the outcome – in 2022 and 2024.
Let’s be clear on whose vote many of these bills are aiming at: people of color. For example, in Georgia, one bill aims to cut the power of Black voters by sharply restricting Sunday voting, limiting the popular practice in many Black churches of following Sunday service with voting known as “souls to the polls.”
In Iowa, the League of United Latin American Citizens has filed a lawsuit to block the state’s new law restricting vote by mail and shorten polling station hours on election day. The suit claims the law imposes undue burdens on minority, elderly, and disabled voters, as well as voters with significant health concerns. Notably, the law comes in a state with a growing Latino population – and no history of voting irregularities.
These are just two examples, but you get the picture. And it’s not hard to see where this is going if these measures continue to advance – especially in states effectively under one-party rule.
Enter the For the People Act
There is hope here. In Congress, the House recently passed HR 1, the For the People Act, and a nearly identical bill is now in the Senate as S1.
If passed, the bill would effectively prevent many of the forms of legal voter suppression we see on the books or in proposed legislation across the country. Just as important, the bill would expand access to the ballot for millions, making it easier for more Americans to actually have a say in the government that represents them.
The act takes aim at a number of objectives, but several are particularly critical to making our elections remain free and fair (for a full rundown, see the Brennan Center’s excellent overview):
1. Make Voter Registration Easy
The bill would follow the model of 19 states and the District of Columbia in adopting automatic voter registration for Americans 18 and over, adding millions to the voter rolls. Complementing this move, the bill would also add same-day registration (already happening in 21 states and DC) and online voter registration (40 states and DC) measures nationwide.
2. Create National Early Voting
The For the People Act would establish a 15-day period of early voting to enable people with busy lives to vote at a time that works for them without having to wait in long lines or make professional or family sacrifices to vote on one day.
Currently, 45 states and DC have some form of early voting period. But with many state lawmakers looking for ways to limit the participation of Blacks, Latinos, Asian American Pacific Islanders, and other minorities, early voting periods are under attack or subject to being cut short in pending or draft legislation across the US.
3. Strengthen Vote-By-Mail
The 2020 election showed the popularity of voting by mail, with an estimated 46% of Americans voting by mail or absentee – up from 21% in 2016. The election also showed the weakness of the system, with some post offices being simply overwhelmed by the sudden addition of millions and millions of ballots. Following the election, vote-by-mail became the target of many conspiracy thinkers and states like Arizona have tried to limit access and eligibility.
The For the People Act would strengthen a good but flawed system and establish a national baseline standard for voting by mail, requiring every state to offer voters the choice of voting this way and provide drop boxes for ballots.
4. Prevent Unfair Purges
Purging eligible voters from the rolls has become a favorite tactic of suppressing the vote in states like Georgia, which in one day removed 560,000 eligible voters from approved lists on the pretext that they hadn’t voted recently enough.
The bill would protect against this practice with strong guidelines for voter purges and requirements that officials give voters plenty of notice and time to correct errors and register before an election.
5. Restoring the Rights of People with Former Convictions
Today, state laws deny nearly 5.2 million Americans of their right to vote – 75% of whom are no longer behind bars. The practice of disenfranchising felons is a relic of racist Jim Crow laws has no place in modern America (not that it ever did). Worst of all, the practice overwhelmingly and disproportionately affects Black Americans, denying 2.2 million Black voters access to the ballot box.
The For the People Act would correct this injustice by giving every American 18 and over who is out of prison and living in the community the right to vote. It’s a simple but critical step toward justice for Americans who’ve served their time and deserve a say.
6. Restore Key Sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
In the 2013 case Shelby vs. Holder, the Supreme Court famously gutted a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The removed measures required designated states with histories of racism and discriminatory voting practices to seek approval from the US Justice Department for any new voting related laws or policies.
Immediately after the decision, Texas and North Carolina introduced new laws to suppress voting rights – though the latter state’s would ultimately be struck down for targeting Black voters “with surgical precision.”
The For the People Act would restore the weakened section of the Voting Rights Act to full strength and help prevent suppression and harm across the nation before it even happens.
What Can You Do?
Angry about the assault on our democracy? Take action today to let your senators know we must pass the For the People Act when it comes up for a vote.
The vote will take place soon and without the bill in place, we can expect more and more voter suppression efforts targeting minority and other voters across the nation. This isn’t about politics or one party versus the other. It’s about what’s fair. It’s about what’s right. It’s about what’s American.
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