By Choice and Circumstance, Democrats Put Voting Rights on the Ballot

The For the People Act, the Democratic voting rights bill that President Biden urged Congress to pass in a major speech in Philadelphia this afternoon, was first introduced in January 2019. It was a simpler time: Few people outside Georgia had heard of Brad Raffensperger, Jan. 6 was just another date on the calendar, and the notion that large numbers of Republicans would join Donald J. Trump in baselessly denying his election loss seemed unlikely.

“Some things in America should be simple and straightforward,” Mr. Biden said in the speech, calling the bill “a national imperative.” He added, “Perhaps the most important of those things, the most fundamental of those things, is the right to vote: the right to vote freely, the right to vote fairly and the right to have your vote counted.”

The bill, also known as H.R. 1 or S. 1 (the names are symbolic of its priority for Democrats), addresses concerns that were top of mind for Democrats before the 2020 election, such as banning partisan gerrymandering, making voting easier and enforcing greater transparency on many political donations. Mr. Biden also called for passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which would reinstate elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013.

However, even many commentators who have expressed concerns about the integrity of future elections have criticized the push for the For the People Act as fighting the last war. (Most Republicans have dismissed the bill as a partisan wish list.) These critics, who include The Times’s Nate Cohn, argue that the bill does little to defang the graver threat that elections might be overturned by partisan lawmakers, a possibility that state-level Republicans have pushed toward reality in electorally critical states like Georgia and Arizona.

“There are really two different issues going on,” said Richard L. Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, who supports the For the People Act. “One is the commonly understood concern about voting suppression. The other, which is really new on the horizon since the 2020 election, is this danger of election subversion: The idea that election officials can manipulate election outcomes so that the winner of the election is not actually declared the winner.”

For Democrats, the For the People Act has the additional drawback of being virtually certain not to pass anytime soon. Progressive activists had hoped the bill’s high-minded commitments might be the thing that persuaded moderate Democratic senators like Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona to eliminate the filibuster, which requires a 60-vote supermajority for many bills to pass the Senate. Getting rid of that hurdle, the thinking went, would then enable Democrats to pass the law with their 50 votes in the Senate (and with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie).

Instead, Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema have vowed to retain the filibuster. On top of that, the bill doesn’t even have 50 votes: Mr. Manchin opposes it, and has instead offered his own compromise, which Republicans have dismissed.

Yet even amid the Covid-19 vaccination drive, a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a second huge budget bill, Democrats have continued to keep voting rights at the center of their messaging, most recently in the speech today.

One reason, Dr. Hasen pointed out, is that even if this appears to be an inopportune moment for Democrats, it is still better than any other foreseeable time. After all, Democrats hold the presidency, the Senate and the House. The 2022 midterm elections could well do away with that, as the Democrats’ control of Congress is extremely slight and presidents’ parties nearly always sustain a backlash in midterm elections. Dramatic developments, such as Texas Democratic lawmakers’ fleeing the state on Monday night to prevent the passage of a major bill that would restrict voting, underscore that sense of urgency.

Mr. Biden’s speech was meant partly as a message to civil rights activists that he hears and appreciates their concerns. Over the weekend, James E. Clyburn, the powerful Democratic congressman from South Carolina whose endorsement last year was critical to Mr. Biden’s securing the presidential nomination, called on the president to support removing the filibuster for legislation tied to electoral reforms.

But another reason for Mr. Biden’s big push is the compelling nature of the issue itself. Mr. Biden called for a nonpartisan, nonpolitical response to what he characterized as Republican voter suppression efforts. He summoned past moments that most Americans accept as welcome elements of progress, including the country’s founding, Reconstruction, the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement.

“This isn’t about Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “It’s literally about who we are as Americans.”

The Fight Over Voting Rights

After former President Donald J. Trump returned in recent months to making false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from him, Republican lawmakers in many states have marched ahead to pass laws that make it harder to vote and that change how elections are run, frustrating Democrats and even some election officials in their own party.

    • A Key Topic: The rules and procedures of elections have become central issues in American politics. As of June 21, lawmakers had passed 28 new laws in 17 states to make the process of voting more difficult, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a research institute.
    • The Basic Measures: The restrictions vary by state but can include limiting the use of ballot drop boxes, adding identification requirements for voters requesting absentee ballots, and doing away with local laws that allow automatic registration for absentee voting.
    • More Extreme Measures: Some measures go beyond altering how one votes, including tweaking rules concerning the Electoral College and judicial elections, clamping down on citizen-led ballot initiatives, and outlawing private donations that provide resources for administering elections.
    • Pushback: This Republican effort has led Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass federal voting laws. A sweeping voting rights bill passed the House in March, but faces difficult obstacles in the Senate, including from Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia. Republicans have remained united against the proposal and even if the bill became law, it would most likely face steep legal challenges.
    • Florida: Measures here include limiting the use of drop boxes, adding more identification requirements for absentee ballots, requiring voters to request an absentee ballot for each election, limiting who could collect and drop off ballots, and further empowering partisan observers during the ballot-counting process.
    • Texas: Texas Democrats successfully blocked the state’s expansive voting bill, known as S.B. 7, in a late-night walkout and are starting a major statewide registration program focused on racially diverse communities. But Republicans in the state have pledged to return in a special session and pass a similar voting bill. S.B. 7 included new restrictions on absentee voting; granted broad new autonomy and authority to partisan poll watchers; escalated punishments for mistakes or offenses by election officials; and banned both drive-through voting and 24-hour voting.
    • Other States: Arizona’s Republican-controlled Legislature passed a bill that would limit the distribution of mail ballots. The bill, which includes removing voters from the state’s Permanent Early Voting List if they do not cast a ballot at least once every two years, may be only the first in a series of voting restrictions to be enacted there. Georgia Republicans in March enacted far-reaching new voting laws that limit ballot drop-boxes and make the distribution of water within certain boundaries of a polling station a misdemeanor. And Iowa has imposed new limits, including reducing the period for early voting and in-person voting hours on Election Day.

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