The United States of America was once a landmark democracy that other nations could only wish to be like. A nation that embraced its diversity and wanted every citizen to have an electoral voice. This is no longer the truth. The United States is no longer a country that understands the disadvantages minorities face every day. The United States is no longer a country that wishes to right its wrongs, rather the leaders of our nation seek to diminish any voice that runs counter to their own.
The United States is a nation with a broken democracy that minimizes the voices of minorities and underprivileged communities.
What happened? Why did the country suddenly resort to old tactics meant to silence the voice of minorities? The simple answer is, look to Shelby County v. Holder. This was a United States Supreme Court case in 2013 that essentially gutted The Voting Rights Act of 1965. The High Court overturned a key provision in the Voting Rights Act that removed an essential tool used to combat racial discrimination in voting.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required pre-approval of changes to voting rules that may affect minorities in areas that had a known history of discrimination. This was referred to as a “preclearance” process that stopped voter suppression and discrimination before it could even happen. Section 5 forced these areas to submit proposed legislation related to voting to the federal government to be approved before they could be enacted to ensure that the proposed legislation would not disproportionately affect minority communities. The Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act which determined the geographic areas covered by Section 5. The Court argued that the formula used to determine which areas would be covered under Section 5 needed to be updated to meet current conditions because there has been a demonstrated lack of discrimination in these areas.
Since the ruling of the Court, multiple states that have been included in the preclearance requirement have passed laws that restrict voting rights. Fourteen states have more restrictive voter ID laws in place. Another twelve states have made it harder for people to register to vote. Seven decreased the number of early voting opportunities and three have made it much harder to restore voting rights to individuals with prior criminal convictions. Within 24 hours of the ruling Texas announced its intention to pass new strict voter ID laws, which the state eventually did.
Where do we go from here?
Recently, Representative John Sarbanes (D-MD) spearheaded the For The People Act (HR-1). The For The People Act aims to touch on voting rights, campaign finance reform, and crack down on corporate lobbying. It is a first of its kind, historic piece of legislation that makes revitalizing our democracy a top priority of Congress. It is very much overdue and the first legislation to address these issues in decades. Voters are aware of the need to revamp the nation’s democratic institutions. In 2018, the country saw the largest midterm voter turnout since 1914 with many voters begging the newly elected Members to prioritize making our democracy for the people again, to which Democratic Members answered the pleas with this bill.
So what’s included in the For The People Act?
Automatic Voter Registration: Fifteen states and the District of Columbia have already implemented a law similar to this but HR-1 aims to automatically enroll any ever eligible voter when the DMV or other agencies are provided with necessary information, unless the individual opts out. It has been estimated that this practice could add as many as 50 million people to the voter roll.
Restoring The Voting Rights Act of 1965: HR-1 would aim to reintroduce protections that were invalidated by the Court in Shelby County v. Holder.
Voting Rights Restoration: HR-1 would restore federal voting rights to individuals with prior criminal convictions essentially wiping the stain of Jim Crow era policies.
An End to Partisan Gerrymandering: HR-1 would make the redistricting process much more transparent opening the door to a process that was unknown by many for years. It would push for the involvement of communities, especially minority communities, in the drawing of districts.
Improvements to Election Security: HR-1 would bring many changes to the way we vote. The bill would create grants to help states improve their election security on an ongoing basis; promote risk-limiting audits; and require states to replace paperless electronic voting machines before the 2020 Presidential Election. This is only a sliver of the reform that HR-1 is seeking.
Election Day a National Holiday: HR-1 would make Election Day a national holiday for federal works while also encouraging private sector companies to do the same. This includes requiring poll-workers to give a week in advance notice if poll sites are changed; requiring more training and recruiting of poll workers ahead of 2020; and making colleges and universities official voter registration agencies.
HR-1 is unlikely to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate but is intended to make a strong statement ahead of the 2020 elections. Democrats want reform, they want to build a more equitable government that is made for the people. Even though the bill will not pass the Senate, it remains as a largely negative impact for Republicans making it the party that isn’t in favor of popular and necessary reform to our democratic institutions.
Democrats are hoping to reinstate the trust in our democratic institutions lost by voters. The For The People Act is exactly the face-lift that American democracy needs and the American people demand. I encourage you to get involved, stay engaged, and remain politically active!
Numbers come from Vox News and Brennan Center for Justice.