The 2022 midterm elections are already underway, and essential voting rights legislation with majority support in Congress and among the public remains stuck in the U.S. Senate due to the filibuster, an arcane rule with a racist history.
The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act (FTV: JRLA) will protect voters from race-based discrimination and set minimum standards to enable all voters to experience free and fair elections.
The U.S. House passed the legislation, but it stalled in the Senate in January 2021. Fifty-two U.S. senators chose to allow an often-amended procedural rule to stand in the way of critical voting rights protections Black and Brown voters need and deserve. We must stay laser-focused on fighting racial discrimination in the voting process until the Senate moves toward being on the right side of history. As the late John Lewis said: “Never give up, never give in, never give out.”
Much has been written about why this legislation is critically important—maybe even existential—for our democracy. While the 2020 election was secure from foreign interference or other manipulation, it did not “go smoothly” for all—rather Black and Brown voters persevered through needless obstacles to turn out in powerful ways. Now, an aggressive rash of anti-voter laws and legislation across the country is targeting the exact mechanisms Black and Brown communities used to make their voices heard—vote by mail, early voting, encouragement to stay on long lines, and more.
Legislation to protect the franchise, such as the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, is desperately needed. This bill would restore vital protections of the Voting Rights Act and set minimum standards for federal elections. It is imperative that the Senate immediately act to pass critical voting rights legislation—staying focused on this issue and pushing past any obstacle. There is no time to waste.
The FTV: JRLA restores the requirement for jurisdictions with a long history of voting discrimination to “pre-clear” future changes to their voting rules. But first the Department of Justice (DOJ) must conduct a careful assessment of past voting violations over 25 years to determine which states and localities are subject to this requirement and publish these decisions in the Federal Register. This could take several months.
Once the FTVA: JRLA becomes law, voters across the country will be able to register and vote on the same day, including on Election Day (more than 20 states already do this). This will boost Black and Brown voter turnout, and help reduce voting disparities by race, age, and other factors. With states already required to maintain a statewide electronic voter registration database, this is feasible everywhere—but it won’t happen overnight. Some jurisdictions will likely increase their use of electronic poll books, tweak their databases, or hire additional staff to handle registration during early voting or on Election Day. And some jurisdictions will be implementing same-day registration at the same time as they are extending early voting opportunities for the first time (another FTVA: JRLA minimum standard).
Automatic voter registration at Departments of Motor Vehicles, online voter registration, increased vote-by-mail and early voting opportunities, better tracking of absentee ballots, voter verified paper ballot systems, and other basic election administration standards set by the FTV: JRLA are all in effect in various places and feasible across the county but will take some time to implement in jurisdictions that have not yet adopted these commonsense reforms.
In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder , the Supreme Court held that the formula for determining which jurisdictions would be covered by the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement was out of date.
For nearly 50 years, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination in voting to submit any changes to voting or redistricting policies to the DOJ or a federal court for pre-approval. This process is known as “preclearance.” The Shelby decision dismantled the protections of Section 5, and since then states and jurisdictions have been free to implement voting changes without the preclearance process to determine if they are discriminatory.
Under the FTV: JRLA, states, counties, and cities with a history of voting discrimination will once again have to submit new district maps for “preclearance” approval, which has been the best defense against discriminatory schemes that pack Black voters into as few districts as possible or spread them too thin to make a difference anywhere. Every day, more states that used to preclear maps before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act are moving forward without this protection. For example, LDF just sued Alabama for denying Black voters an equal voice with its new maps.
The FTVA: JRLA prohibits partisan gerrymandering, which helps all voters get congressional delegations that fairly represent the political views in their states. But delays in passing the legislation will hamper this benefit. Rather than getting fair congressional maps on the first try, voters may have to sue states later to make them redraw lines—an expensive and time-consuming process.
LDF’s Jared Evans, Policy Counsel, and Michael Pernick, Redistricting Counsel, reflect on the unique and impactful nature of this redistricting cycle.
Understanding the role of race the redistricting process as a means of ensuring equitable representation and political power is critical.
LDF has been working in key states throughout the 2021 redistricting cycle to ensure maps are drawn fairly and do not discriminate against Black voters.
We’ve compiled answers to frequently asked questions about Merrill v. Milligan and its impact on voting rights and redistricting.
In a direct response to voters of color making their voices heard in record numbers, state legislatures across the country enacted at least 34 restrictive voting laws since the 2020 election. The laws range from rolling back vote-by-mail or early voting, expanding voter purges, exposing election officials to criminal penalties for doing their jobs, and requiring stricter forms of identification. More than 100 similar bills have been introduced so far in 2022.
After voters make the effort to register, they should stay on the voter rolls unless there is a specific reason to remove them—like they’ve definitely moved or passed away. Unfortunately, conservative politicians and activist groups who fear an inclusive democracy have waged an aggressive campaign in recent years to “purge” as many voters as they can from the rolls—often targeting jurisdictions with large populations of Black and Brown voters. And legislatures are moving to change laws to open the door for more aggressive purges.
The FTV: JRLA augments the National Voter Registration Act’s (NVRA) existing protections by preventing voters from being purged from the voter rolls just because they missed a few recent elections—ensuring voting isn’t a “use it or lose it” right.
The NVRA prohibits states from removing people from the voter registration rolls in a wholesale fashion within 90 days of a federal election. This requires that states complete any systematic “list maintenance” programs by July, meaning that the new FTV: JRLA protections must be in place a few months earlier to ensure people are not wrongfully purged before November 2022.
Most states have voter registration deadlines in October, which means that any registration improvements must be in place at least a couple of months earlier to have a meaningful effect. The FTV: JRLA requires states to offer Online Voter Registration, which streamlines the process for election officials, and can help voters register from their computers or phones in the eight states that do not yet offer this service.
The FTV: JRLA also requires states to offer Same Day Registration so voters can register and vote at the same time, either during early vote or on Election Day. The FTV: JRLA requires states to offer at least two weeks of early voting as well. The FTV: JRLA provides a host of minimum standards protecting the vote-by-mail process that must be in effect at least a couple of months before these deadlines to have full impact.
Election Day, of course, is the single day when voters experience the biggest range of challenges from long lines caused by too few polling locations or broken machines to being told they’re not on the voting rolls to strict voter ID provisions that act as a poll tax and barrier to the ballot box.
LDF documented scores of Election Day problems in our recent Democracy Defended report about our 2020 voter protection activities. Our voter protection efforts for state elections in 2021 showed these challenges have hardly abated. In fact, the hundreds of bad voting bills in legislatures across the country will likely make things worse in 2022 without federal action.
The FTV: JRLA contain a range of protections and minimum standards that will make Election Day 2022 much smoother, especially for Black and Brown voters—but only if the legislation is enacted in time.
With several months between passage and protections, each week of delay on the front end causes serious problems for voters. We have no more time to spare or waste. Our leaders in Washington must find a way to protect our votes now, before any more important federal elections are held in which a person’s right to vote depends upon the size of their wallet, the color of their skin, or where they live.