UPDATE: On November 3, Senate Republicans voted to block debate on the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and prevent the bill from receiving a floor vote.
With the addition of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) as co-sponsors, a majority of the Senate now supports the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
Similarly, a majority supports, and has voted for, the Freedom to Vote Act, which would establish national standards on voting, redistricting, and campaign finance.
These bills are extraordinarily important. They are vital to defend our democracy from the assault it faces — critical to ensure that elections are free and fair, critical to ensure that we do not choke off our emerging multiracial democracy.
The choice before the Senate, then, is rather stark: voting rights or obstruction.
Murkowski’s support is greatly welcomed. She has supported the John Lewis Voting Rights Act before. But the central fact is that these vital pieces of legislation have run into a brick wall of partisan obstruction by the Senate Republican minority. That minority will not even allow a vote.
That partisan divide was not always the norm. The last time the 1965 Voting Rights Act was considered for renewal by the Senate, in 2006, it passed 98–0.
There are ways to move these bills to a final vote without jettisoning the filibuster, ways that preserve the Senate’s cherished (if somewhat illusory) values of debate and conciliation. The filibuster in this instance does not facilitate compromise or conciliation. It allows a minority to block needed legislation. The Senate has found many ways to ease passage of vital legislation despite Senate rules. This is such a time, and the stakes are that high.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was perhaps the most effective civil rights law in American history. It changed the South, and the country. By 2012, Black voter turnout had equaled or exceeded white voter turnout in states like Louisiana, Alabama, and South Carolina. Everyone, everyone, agreed that the Voting Rights Act worked.
In 2013, however, the Supreme Court triggered the collapse of that consensus. In Shelby County v. Holder, five justices ruled that the Voting Rights Act was outdated, and they eviscerated its protections. The four dissenting justices predicted the decision would allow the return of discriminatory voting laws.
The dissenters were right. This year alone, 19 states have passed dozens of laws making it harder to vote. Many of those states would have been required to seek federal permission had the Voting Rights Act stood.
These restrictive new laws have disproportionately impacted voters of color. Steady gains in Black voting rates have been reversed. In most of the states where Black voter turnout had surged prior to Shelby County, white voter turnout rates once again far exceed rates for Black voters. It’s difficult to imagine more powerful empirical evidence that the original safeguards of the Voting Rights Act remain necessary.
The Senate will vote on advancing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act tomorrow. We expect it to garner a majority — a majority that represents a major step toward the broad, longstanding public consensus that voting rights and equality under the law are sacred in the United States. That majority must, one way or another, rule on this most crucial of issues.