Since the current session of Congress began in January 2021, the United States Senate has thus far failed to enact crucial federal voting rights protections. This inaction is wholly unacceptable and has steep costs for voters – especially voters of color, who are continuing to confront mounting hurdles to the ballot box with each passing week.
Over the past few election cycles, the Legal Defense Fund (LDF)’s Prepared to Vote and Voting Rights Defender teams received many reports of the consequences of insufficient federal voting rights protections, and have documented serious problems that could be readily addressed if the Senate passes both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA) and the Freedom to Vote Act (FTVA). These voters’ experiences are just a snapshot of the numerous voting rights injustices occurring around the country and illustrate the very real consequences of insufficient federal voting rights protections, especially as states continue passing voter suppression laws.
Broadly, the VRAA would reinstate crucial protections in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – most importantly preclearance, an essential provision significantly weakened by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. Preclearance requires states with a history of voting discrimination to gain approval from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) or a federal court before making changes to their election processes, including implementing new election laws.
The FTVA would significantly increase voting accessibility in addition to addressing growing concerns over voter intimidation, partisan gerrymandering, voting misinformation, and other worsening crises.
Without these protections, voters of color, voters with disabilities, and other vulnerable communities will be further silenced by strategic and manipulative efforts to suppress their vote, as these examples readily demonstrate.
Polling site closures have been an increasing problem, especially with staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many counties fail to announce such closures or do so at the last minute, causing confusion and an exacerbated burden for voters who must now determine their new polling place. Before the election on Nov. 13, 2021, Iberia Parish, Louisiana closed eight polling places. Nearly every closed polling place was located in a predominantly Black neighborhood, inhibiting Black voters’ ability to access the ballot box. The closed polling locations served a total of 5,913 voters, all of whom had to be assigned to a different location – some as far as 10 miles away.
Because of Louisiana’s long history of voter suppression, Iberia Parish’s polling site closures would have required preclearance prior to the Shelby decision. Without preclearance, election officials were able to make significant, unchecked changes that impacted Black residents’ say in amendments to the Louisiana Constitution and local representation, including City Marshal for New Iberia City Court.
The VRAA would reinstate preclearance, requiring certain jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to seek approval from the DOJ or a federal court for any future changes to election procedures before they occurred. Under the VRAA, this approval would have likely been required ahead of Iberia Parish’s polling sites closure decision.
Despite a 2020 district court order requiring Louisiana to implement basic accommodations to protect voters during the pandemic, its secretary of state failed to extend COVID-19 emergency protections for absentee voting in 2021’s elections amidst the surging Delta variant, claiming it would only affect a small percentage of voters. As a result, many voters’ only option was risking their health to cast an in-person ballot.
Lawmakers in numerous states have also reduced the number of drop boxes for voters to return their ballots. For example, in Texas, each county is only allowed one drop-off location for mail-in ballots, including Harris County, which is home to 4.7 million people.
By unnecessarily restricting who can vote by mail and limiting drop-off locations, election officials severely limit voting options and accessibility. These rules, particularly amid a deadly pandemic that has disproportionally impacted people of color, needlessly burden and endanger voters, as no one should have to choose between protecting their health and casting a ballot.
The FTVA offers a minimum standard of no-excuse vote by mail for all voters, ensuring that any voter who wants to vote by mail for any reason – illness, travel, disability, public health concerns, childcare, etc. – can easily participate in the electoral process. It also requires states to have ample drop-off locations, including on tribal lands.
Early voting not only provides individuals greater flexibility to cast a ballot in-person, but it greatly reduces wait times on Election Day. Mississippi and Alabama – states with some of the highest Black populations in the country – do not offer early voting options for all registered voters. Among other factors, a lack of early voting can contribute to long lines at polling sites on Election Day, which may deter people from voting. For example, in various counties across Alabama, volunteers documented polling site lines that exceeded 30 minutes during the 2020 general election. One line at a polling site in Baldwin County had a two-and-a-half-hour wait. Another in Pike Place had a 90-minute wait. Similar wait times were also reported in numerous polling places in both South Carolina and Mississippi.
The FTVA would require states to offer a minimum of 14 consecutive days of early voting, including weekends, and to keep polls open for at least 10 hours each day. Voters who struggle to find time to get to the polls – those who can’t miss work, find childcare, or don’t have frequent access to transportation – would be greatly assisted by an expansion of early voting.
On Oct. 31, 2020, in Alamance County, North Carolina, police, unprovoked, pepper sprayed a crowd of 200 peaceful marchers and prospective voters, who were walking from a nearby church to a polling site. It was the last day of early voting, and the crowd had just knelt in silence to remember the murder of George Floyd. Police forced the crowd to flee and prevented them from voting as planned. As a response, LDF filed a lawsuit against the city of Graham and Alamance County challenging this needless use of force and intimidation of prospective voters, which reached a settlement in June 2021. In addition to this egregious incident, LDF also received reports of heightened police presence at polling sites in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida during 2020 general election, specifically in Black communities.
Volunteers also witnessed armed individuals loitering at polling sites to intimidate voters and polling site workers. In Travis County and Fort Worth, Texas, armed supporters of former President Trump harassed voters in line and circled polling sites, causing some people to leave without voting. In one instance, armed individuals were escorted by police officers into the polling site rather than forced to leave.
After armed white supremacists breached the U.S. Capitol attempting to overturn the results of the presidential election and thwart a peaceful transition of power, violence on Election Day and at polling sites has become an even more pressing concern. The FTVA would increase existing penalties for voter intimidation and provide additional protections against intimidating, threatening, or coercing election officials.
In November 2021, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey approved new state political maps that pack Black voters into a small number of districts and divide communities of color throughout the rest of the state to dilute their voting power, a clear sign of racial gerrymandering. LDF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Black Alabama voters arguing that the maps deny Black residents equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect candidates of their choice.
While the 2021 redistricting cycle has already begun, the VRAA would require states with a history of discrimination to “preclear” their redistricting plans in the future.
In addition to the VRAA, the FTVA’s protections would help fight the marginalization of communities of color in the redistricting process, as it bans partisan gerrymandering — which often diminishes Black voters’ voices. The bill would also provide greater transparency in the redistricting process and add enhanced judicial remedies to ensure that gerrymandered maps can be quickly challenged in court.
Across multiple counties in Alabama, voters with disabilities struggled to cast a ballot in the 2020 general election due to limited accessible parking, absent ramps, and improper or missing signage. One Huntsville polling site was located on a hill with no directional signs or ramp to the sidewalk, making access for wheelchair users challenging or even impossible. Additionally, curbside voting was not provided as an option, since the Supreme Court upheld the Alabama election officials’ ban on the practice. Notably, curbside voting has also been limited in other states, including South Carolina and Pennsylvania.
The FTVA would improve poll site accessibility standards and require an expedited line for voters with disabilities and older voters. It would also require states to ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to mail-in voting as other voters, in addition to making ballots electronically accessible to voters with disabilities.
These voter experiences are merely a few of the countless examples of a rapidly intensifying nationwide voting rights crisis — one in which 19 states have enacted more than 33 laws that make it harder to vote. Elected officials are tasked with many responsibilities, but by far one of the most important is protecting the integrity of our political process. The recent attacks on American democracy and citizens’ constitutional rights are relentless. Entering a new election cycle without needed protections ignores the emergency American democracy is facing. The Senate must take whatever action is necessary to immediately pass the VRAA and the FTVA to protect voting rights laws and our democracy.
Despite an unprecedented series of challenges—a global pandemic, extreme weather, rampant misinformation, voter intimidation, and coordinated efforts to disenfranchise millions of voters of color—Black voters